In Teaching, Pink Slips Are A Way Of Life

Jun 15, 2011
Originally published on June 15, 2011 1:24 pm

For many teachers, job uncertainty is one of the biggest downsides of their profession.

Recent estimates from the American Association of School Administrators show that about a quarter-million educators could face layoffs in the coming year as states cut education spending in an effort to balance their budgets. That has left many teachers wondering where their next paycheck will come from.

Two of those teachers facing uncertainty are in Los Angeles, where as many as 1,600 teachers and staff may lose their jobs this summer.

Drama teacher Misty Monroe is an itinerant drama teacher. Every day, she visits a different LA school and brings a little art into kids' lives. Despite eight years with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Monroe is no stranger to the layoff notice.

Many school districts are required to send out layoff notices in the spring even if they think they will rehire workers. The school district originally sent out 5,000 notices to educators this year. Often, teachers are "recalled" and get their jobs back over the summer. That's what happened to Monroe last year, but she says the suspense of having unemployment hanging over her head is unnerving.

"The sad part is that morale dips so drastically once the pink slips go out, because the worry begins about family, mortgage, stuff like that," Monroe says.

Whether the cause is budget cuts or shrinking enrollment, some teachers face this prospect year after year. Despite all the hubbub about union contracts and how tough it is to fire bad teachers, junior teachers have little protection against the layoff ax.

Just ask Rohya Prudhomme, who's been teaching in L.A. for four years. Prudhomme gets the same letter every spring. "For the past three years, I've gotten a pink slip every single year," she says.

At her apartment in downtown L.A., Prodhomme pulls out this year's personal communication from the school district. It's not pink, actually; it's just another form letter from a big office.

"As you may be aware, the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to face a dire financial situation" the letter begins, and goes on to express "sincere regret" that Prudhomme is once again on the list of teachers who may lose their jobs.

Prudhomme teaches English at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, and she considers the job a fulfillment of a dream. It's a big urban school, full of mostly low-income students — just the population she wanted to serve.

Nova Mesa, her supervisor, says it's just a bad time. "You can't blame the district, you can't blame — I guess — the school, necessarily. I just feel like education in the state of California is in dire straits," Mesa says.

Many do blame state laws and union contracts that say teachers must be laid off according to seniority. But many teachers say that ending seniority rights is not the answer. That would just make them feel more insecure.

Prudhomme could search for jobs in other districts. But all are facing budget pressures, and she'd have to give up what little seniority she has. Charter schools are another option she's considering. But she's stuck on her school and on the kids, and she doesn't want to leave. So until school ends later this month, "I teach as though I don't have a pink slip. I teach as though I'll be teaching forever."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Let's hear now from teachers who are having trouble pursuing their chosen career. An estimated quarter million educators face layoffs in the coming year, as states cut school funding to balance budgets. That number comes from the American Association of School Administrators. And many teachers name job uncertainty as one of the biggest downsides of the profession. NPR's Larry Abramson spent time with two teachers here in Los Angeles who are worried about their next paycheck.

LARRY ABRAMSON: At Graham Elementary School in South Los Angeles, drama teacher Misty Monroe gets to see students during a rare moment in their day. When she's teaching them, they aren't angsting over some high stakes test.

MISTY MONROE: Today let's have you line up like pirates.

ABRAMSON: Misty Monroe is an itinerant drama teacher. Every day she visits a different L.A. school and brings a little art into kids' lives. Despite eight years with the L.A. Unified School District, Monroe has gotten an unwelcome present at the end of this year - a layoff notice.

MONROE: This will be my second year, second year.

ABRAMSON: Many school districts are required to send out layoff notices in the spring even if they think they will rehire workers. Many teachers are recalled over the summer. That's what happened to Misty Monroe last year. But she says the suspense of having unemployment hanging over your head is unnerving.

MONROE: The sad part is that morale dips so drastically once the pink slips go out, because the worry begins about family, mortgage and stuff like that.

ABRAMSON: Just ask Rohya Prudhomme. After four years with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Prudhomme gets the same letter every spring.

ROHYA PRUDHOMME: For the past three years, I've gotten a pink slip, every single year.

ABRAMSON: At her apartment in downtown Los Angeles, Rohya Prudhomme pulls out this year's personal communication from the school district.

PRUDHOMME: (Reading) As you may be aware, the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to face a dire financial situation. While the district hopes that solutions may be found to mitigate this crisis, it is with sincere regret that I must send you this letter at this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ABRAMSON: Her supervisor here, Nova Mesa, says it's just a bad time.

NOVA MESA: You can't blame the district. You can't blame, I guess, the schools, necessarily. I just feel like education in the state of California is in dire straits.

ABRAMSON: Junior Jacki Vasquez came to a park near downtown to talk about the fate of her favorite teacher. Vasquez says she has struggled in high school, but Prudhomme stayed on her.

JACKI VASQUEZ: She's always asking me how am I doing, how are my other classes. She always pushes me.

ABRAMSON: You need that.

VASQUEZ: Yeah. Yeah. I do.

ABRAMSON: Right.

VASQUEZ: Because I just tend to slack off and not care.

ABRAMSON: Prudhomme took Jackie and some other students on a college tour of Northern California last year, at her own expense. They will be among the first in their families to go to college. Jacki knows that getting into the University of California at Berkeley would be a reach for her, but she is jazzed by the prospect.

VASQUEZ: Rohya Prudhomme could search for jobs in other districts, but all of them are facing budget pressures, and she'd have to give up what little seniority she has. Charter schools are another option she's considering. But for now, she's stuck on her school and on the kids here, and she doesn't want to leave. So until school ends later this month...

PRUDHOMME: I teach as though I don't have a pink slip. I teach as though I'll be teaching forever.

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.