Home / Opinion / A Letter to Hoosier Teachers: Vote or Die

A Letter to Hoosier Teachers: Vote or Die

If you’re a public school teacher in Indiana, I’m writing to you.  If you’re not a member of that community, you’re more than welcome to read along, but please understand that I write this without apology.  We are in the process of reaching out to other writers willing to share a different take on this debate, and once those are penned we will share them here.  But in the meantime, I’m talking about the future of my day job.  It’s that simple.  Thank you for understanding.

Dear Hoosier Teachers:

In 2008 I voted for Mitch Daniels.  If you don’t know me, let me clarify:  I’m a public school teacher who grew up in a New Deal/ Blue-Collar/ Distrust-the-Bankers/ Distrust-the-Front-Office family.  So…to repeat: In 2008, I voted for Mitch Daniels.

I know…right?

Why did I punch that button?  For one, Jill Long—Daniels’ Democratic opponent that year–ran a campaign which resembled the clichéd three-ring circus…minus the rings…and the tent…and any cages or restraints.  I think I saw a total of five yard signs (all of them with different designs); I never heard a peep from her on television, on the web, or over the radio; and I simply didn’t believe she had the capacity to govern if she couldn’t even run an effective campaign.

Compounding that, Mitch ran a set of slick pro-teacher ads that year, including my favorite: one where he stood by a pair of IPS teachers telling the camera that he was going to support stricter discipline.  That the parents were responsible for the behavior of their children.

Parents.  Responsible.

Keep in mind, this was two years before we lost our minds over the “government takeover” of our healthcare.  So after we stopped screaming from the back of the room at crying, wheelchair-bound women in those town hall meetings (saying things such as, yes, they should just go ahead and die) we rushed to the polls in a fever and gave Our Man Mitch the majority he needed in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Now I see many hard-working laborers who remind me of my dad—a general contractor who sizzled on steaming rooftops in the summer and froze in dark crawlspaces six months later…they certainly work more days a year, and on many of those days they put in very long hours.  Even though I feel that their anger is misplaced, I now accept that it’s valid.

What happened to me in the year which followed is a story which probably mirrors your own.  Salary? Frozen.  Labor protections? Gone.  Scapegoating? Done.  Bureaucratic busywork? Quadrupled…or more.  That’s an old story.  Like all of you on the night Glena Ritz ousted Tony Bennett, I thought the worst was behind us.  Like all of you, I was wrong.

Now we sit on the eve of another election (in the case of the primary, the metaphor becomes literal).  Four years ago, we assumed that Glenda’s ascension validated our work, maybe even stifling the critics who hammered at us on everything from our summers off to tenure to our 3:15 clock-out time.  And for every one of those four years, troll after troll after troll hopped onto Facebook comment sections, local news comment sections, Indy Star comment sections.  They lit the same firecrackers, the same clichés.

Meanwhile the General Assembly moved ahead.  They squelched Glenda’s voice and power.  They wrote their “not the Common Core” version of the Common Core.  They ran state funding into the ground.  They tried to change the retirement age.  They screwed up the already screwed up school letter grade fiasco.  They spent money hand-over-fist for online tests that didn’t work. And they transformed teaching from an appealing career for impassioned young people into a plague-infested wasteland for anyone willing to earn crash-course certification.  And they did it all with zero impunity.

Anecdotally speaking, the consensus among the people I read, listen to, and follow seems to suggest that current governor Mike Pence is either vulnerable or outright done.  I hope most people are smarter than this.  We live in Indiana, where out there among all of that ash, oak, and spruce the state’s GOP loyalists have burned their “red” into “scarlet.”  If any state would gladly reelect someone who rates between “incompetent” and “derelict” it would be Indiana.

So when we go to the polls (tomorrow and in November) our future will quite literally be in our hands.  And if you’re one of the many GOP-leaning educators in the state of Indiana, I don’t pity your predicament.  In many ways you’re being forced to choose between your values on one hand and your income and retirement on the other.  If I use 2012’s results as my baseline data, then I’m assuming you voted for Glenda as your statement about the latter and then voted for Pence as your preservation of the former.  In 2012, that was a logical move.  One I respect.  But the current batch of GOP’ers in the State House have made themselves explicitly clear: unless you stop them…unless you remove them…they are going to press on.

We live in Indiana, where out there among all of that ash, oak, and spruce the state’s GOP loyalists have burned their “red” into “scarlet.”  If any state would gladly reelect someone who rates between “incompetent” and “derelict” it would be Indiana.

In the meantime, while we wait for our chance to stand in next fall’s November winds, waiting to cast those ballots, I would suggest we change our tactics with our friends and family who do not work in the classrooms.  Trying to get them to understand our jobs from our perspective has failed.  As my friend Justin Oakley once said to me of the general public: “They will nod their heads, tell you that they support you, and then step into that booth and vote against you.”

For a long time, I didn’t understand why, and I even resented them for that slight.  But I see it differently now.  Now I see many hard-working laborers who remind me of my dad—a general contractor who sizzled on steaming rooftops in the summer and froze in dark crawlspaces six months later.  Let’s face it, they certainly work more days a year, and on many of those days they put in very long hours.  Even though I feel that their anger is misplaced, I now accept that it’s valid.  Responding to that hostility with equal hostility has gotten us nowhere.

Once the state has effectively “charter-ized” most of Indiana, those “dollars following the student” will be rolled back.  They will.  Imagine the day when middle class families are trying to come up with tuition fees equivalent to a pair of country club memberships—every year for 13 years.

Instead, we need to shift the discussion.  Turn the crisis from us to them.  Point out to them one obvious consequence of the reform movement which everyone seems to have ignored: if the reformers get their way, everyone will be paying tuition from pre-K on.  Once the state has effectively “charter-ized” most of Indiana, those “dollars following the student” will be rolled back.  They will.  We should have them imagine the day when middle class families are trying to come up with tuition fees equivalent to a pair of country club memberships—every year for 13 years with the spectre of the college price-tag looming beyond that.  And we shouldn’t stop there.  We should also encourage future grandparents to imagine forking over their Florida and Myrtle Beach money to help their adult kids send their grandchildren to school.  If the millennials can barely pay for themselves now in this economy, who is going to be helping them pay for their own kids?  The reformers plan to do to schools what Time-Warner did to television: turn something we used to get for very little into something for which we willingly pay hyper-inflated fees.

While I think such a conversation might get through to a smattering of lay-people, human nature’s long track-record suggests that no one is thinking that far down the road.  So for now, it’s up to us.  Someday I would like to be able to actually discuss ways to make our schools better.  God knows they needed a lot of fixing before “Superman” showed up and made everything worse.  And one day I would like to be able to vote for someone in the other party strictly on the merits of her campaign and on the genial idea that she would treat her job with professionalism and not ideology.

But that day is not now.  Right now I’m voting to hang onto my frozen salary and my retirement.  Right now, I’m voting to keep myself in the middle-class.  And if, for some reason, you’re still not sure how you’ll cast your vote this November, then let me remind of you of something I said when I shared that aforementioned interview with Oakley to the educational world:  Vote or die.


One Hoosier Teacher.

Mishawaka High School. Public Domain Photograph.
Mishawaka High School.
Public Domain Photograph.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

Photo Credit:  Mishawaka-indiana-high-school is a Public Domain photograph.

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  1. Your commentary is spot-on, but will Hoosiers listen? Too many proudly go into the voting booth, mark their all-Republican ballot and walk out without thinking of the consequences of their votes. Raised and educated in Indiana, I left in 2013 after a 17-year public teaching career. I didn’t vote for Daniels in 2008. In 2012, I canvassed for Glenda and Gregg. I begged my colleagues not to vote for Pence. Unlike many teachers who thought they could vote for Glenda and solve all our problems while also voting for Pence, I pleaded with any who would listen not to bury their heads in the sand that way. Another colleague and I made impassioned speeches at faculty meetings. I’m a journalist; I’m trained to do research and investigate. I could see the writing on the wall, that Pence would use a supermajority in the legislature to undercut Ritz at every turn. The anger because of Tony Bennett’s defeat ensured that the legislators and the governor would find a way to negate Ritz’s election. (And, let’s face it, the fact that a woman beat their golden boy played into it, too. Anyone who believes otherwise refuses to see the realities of Indiana politics.)

    As my job became unbearable due to the ever-increasing paperwork, frozen salaries, budget cuts, endless and meaningless professional development, and the prospect of having my evaluation based on my students’ test scores, I started applying for multiple jobs outside the classroom. I was an award-winning Indiana educator. I worked in three different schools in 17 years, and in every case, the student publications I took over advising became state and nationally-award winning publications. I helped my students get scholarships to multiple colleges. At my last position, I taught seven different preps, advised two different student publications, and directed every theater production, but the state wanted my pay and evaluation to be based on the ONE sophomore English class I taught, a class in which I got all the special ed students because the special ed teachers thought I “was better with them.” However, those same students often had language-processing disabilities which all but guaranteed they couldn’t pass the English 10 ECA on the first try. All my regular ed students passed on the first try; most of my special ed students couldn’t. (But, I raised the rate of the special ed students passing it on the second try! The state didn’t care about that, though.)

    In 2013, I left the state. I had an offer from a private school out west, which also allowed me to move to the same city as my sister. Although I am the ultimate public school advocate, I took the job and haven’t looked back. I now can actually teach again! My opinion is valued by my administration. I create my own curriculum. I have time to collaborate with colleagues. And, my pay and evaluation is not based on standardized testing. In fact, my school is free from almost all of the state’s constraints, which is important to me as the Nevada Assembly has been going down the same road as the Indiana Legislature.

    When I first started teaching in Indiana, the job was fun. I felt valued, and I enjoyed putting in the hard work for my students. But from 2008 on, it became nothing but a chore. The students hadn’t changed, and my effort hadn’t changed, but the odious regulations forced upon us by a governor and legislature more worried about lining their lobbyists and campaign contributors’ pockets than actually helping schools destroyed everything that was great about the career. Indiana’s public schools are the backbone of most Hoosier towns. The general public needs to wake up to what’s going on, and more importantly, teachers cannot go to the ballot box and vote Republican this year. They just can’t. Remember the adage: If you keep doing the same thing you’ve always done, you’ll get the same results.

    • Every GOP General Assembly Member that upholds the ALEC and Pence agenda and has consistently voted against teachers and public education MUST have a challenger. After the primaries, these challengers must step forward to serve and give voters of choice. Far too many office holders in Indiana go unchallenged — that cannot happen this upcoming year. We need more teachers running for office, not more lawyers. I urge everyone that is passionate about public education and understands the gravity of the situation in losing our public schools to privatization and control — work to have every General Assembly seat contested with a pro-education candidate. And, vote for Glenda Ritz and John Gregg in November. Having Gregg as our governor does not help if we deliver him the same Supermajority GOP that can over-ride his veto to anti-education legislation.

  2. You speak the truth.

  3. GOP dominated state government sells Indiana as “business friendly”. Business friendly is code for low wages, no labor protection, and if you have lots of money don’t worry about paying your fair share in taxes that contributes to the well-being of Indiana.

  4. Because of the issues you have presented and many more, I believe it is time to stand up and not let the supermajorities and Governor continue this legislation unopposed. https://www.facebook.com/District18DeservesMoore/

  5. I think your argument is important and needs discussing. However, you have failed to convince me that I should take you seriously. I know teachers are afraid and angry of what might happen in the future, but rest assured, you are being paranoid for no reason. Daniels froze pay because that is economical, and he did the same thing at Purdue, the university I attend, so that students did not have to pay increases in tuition. Also this is not a political problem, this is a ego problem. Don’t try to make this political for you don’t seem to understand politics. Glenda Ritz was said to have been very difficult to work with and not very cooperative. Likewise, you have a us against them mentality. And before you label me as a right wing member of the GOP, I will tell you that since Indiana chose Trump as the nominee for president, I will have nothing to do with the GOP. I will be honest and say that I don’t who I can trust in the General Assembly, but let me be perfectly clear, I trust Mitch Daniels. If Daniels says that Pence is worth trusting, I am going to take his word for it. You seem genuine, but then again you are spouting off your political opinions online when you should be more concerned about educating the future of this country. Also we don’t need more liberals getting involved in education, just look at the Chicago and South Bend school systems if you don’t believe me. The last point I want to make is that I hope that you are not sharing your opinions in the classroom but rather exposing your students to every possible view and letting them make their own decisions.

  6. Excellent article on our plight as public school teachers. I have sent this to many, in hopes of sharing your thoughts, with which I completely concur! Thanks for saying it out loud.

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