Wisconsin teaching environment holds caution, hope for UW-Madison education majors

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Five years ago, UW-Madison senior and education major Janaina Rodriguez watched as her parents, both teachers, took cuts to their monthly salaries that significantly affected how they were able to support her and her siblings.

The cuts began after Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 10, which stripped Wisconsin educators of collective bargaining rights, required teachers to pay more for health care and other benefits and reduced funding for public schools.

“[My parents] sat me down and were like, ‘Look, I know you’re a passionate future educator, but just keep in mind that this is not over,’” Rodriguez said. “‘What’s going on is not over until your voice is heard.’”

Rodriguez attends meetings, participates in protests and signs petitions to ensure that after she graduates, the Wisconsin teaching atmosphere will let her provide for herself and follow her passion.

Today, with teacher shortages across the state, UW-Madison education majors like Rodriguez who are looking to teach in Wisconsin are preparing to adapt to the new environment they will see after graduation.

Rodriguez is currently a member of the Student Wisconsin Education Association, the student branch of the statewide teachers’ union Wisconsin Education Association Council. Student WEA, which has chapters at 26 universities throughout Wisconsin, provides opportunities for preservice teachers to participate in professional development workshops and networking events.

Aila Bretl, a UW-Madison elementary education major and president of the campus chapter of Student WEA, said her organization has more than 70 members who support and grow with one another as future teachers.

Bretl said participating in Student WEA has helped her have confidence in pursuing the teaching profession. Because the student members pay dues, she explained they are allowed access to support from WEAC.

“When we go into the field and we’re looking for a job, we can call them and ask for support in looking up comparable teaching salaries, or finding out about resources like that,” Bretl said.

WEAC media spokesperson Christina Brey echoed Bretl’s sentiment that the organization provides a support system for preservice teachers.

Brey said in Wisconsin, about half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years because some starting teacher salaries in the state are as low as $31,000, an amount likely not enough to offset the burden of student loan debt.

She said that by giving these students networking opportunities with active teachers, they can learn more about what the profession is like today.

“We really believe that as a union, it’s our responsibility to be there for future teachers and help those early-career educators,” Brey said.

Although Bretl did not consider herself well-versed in the politics behind Act 10, she said she thinks it devalued teaching as a profession in Wisconsin.

“You hear things like, ‘Teaching is babysitting,’ or ‘Anyone could be a teacher,’” Bretl said. “The general light that [Act 10] shed on teaching, I think, is discouraging for people to look at and want to become a part of it.”

Ald. Tim Gruber, District 11, a teacher at Madison’s Midvale Elementary School, said Act 10 gave the impression the state does not value its teachers as professionals.

Throughout his career, Gruber has been a member of the union Madison Teachers Incorporated, which has around 4,500 members. In the years since Act 10, Gruber noticed that it has been more difficult to organize and run the union, to the point where “it is like being harassed.”

Gruber said teachers today are adapting to the new environment and are hopeful conditions will improve.

“People are going on with their jobs and doing their best,” Gruber said. “It’s definitely a different system that the unions are operating under.”

Although the way unions function has been redirected since Act 10, Brey said WEAC membership has stabilized at around 50,000 teachers, support staff members and technical college instructors.

Brey explained today’s educators in Wisconsin are “doing more with less.” She added that the union’s focus has shifted away from traditional lobbying at the state level to grassroots activism, where members reach out to the community in hopes of making positive changes.

While many criticized Act 10, others like Alex Kredell, a UW-Madison sophomore and education major, acknowledge both its positive and negative effects. Kredell noted a report that the legislation will save the Milwaukee Public School district more than $100 million a year by 2020.

Kredell hopes to work for MPS after she graduates. Although the low teacher salary is something she considered, it did not discourage her from switching her major from nursing to education.

“I really do love it and I am a believer that as long as I am happy doing what I’m doing, I can figure out the financial part and make it work,” Kredell said.

Although Brey and Gruber acknowledged the limitations Act 10 and other funding cuts have placed on Wisconsin teachers, they both harbor hope for the profession.

Brey said respect for teachers statewide has hit an all-time low, which means future educators need to be realistic, but she added that “to teach in Wisconsin is a wonderful thing.”

“If you are committed and called to teach, I would say that you should surround yourself with professional educators who will help you along, who will have your back, who will be there to trust,” Brey said.

Throughout their time in UW-Madison’s School of Education, Rodriguez and Bretl have remained focused on their passion for working with children and helping them learn.

Rodriguez said although she knows there is a chance she’ll only sign a one-year contract in her first teaching job, she still sees opportunities to succeed in the profession in Wisconsin. She said she thinks part of the need for teachers statewide stems from less people wanting to go into the Wisconsin teaching environment.

However, Rodriguez said she does not necessarily view the teacher shortage and ensuing open positions at schools as a detriment to fulfilling her career goals. Rather, she looks at it as somewhat of an opportunity to reshape state support for the teaching profession

“I know a lot of people in my cohort are going back to Minnesota or any other places because they don’t want to teach in Wisconsin, because of what’s happening,” Rodriguez explained. “But that kind of inspires me to stay here and fight for what I believe in.”

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