Teachers put in the work — outside class

Lorna Stowers holds down three outside jobs to make ends meet when she’s not teaching English at Bond County Community High School in Greenville

Lorna Stowers teaches English in her classroom at Bond County Community High School in a scene from her video on “The Real Life of Illinois Educators.” (Illinois Education Association)

Lorna Stowers teaches English in her classroom at Bond County Community High School in a scene from her video on “The Real Life of Illinois Educators.” (Illinois Education Association)

By Ted Cox

Of the four English classes Lorna Stowers teaches at Bond County Community High School, her favorite is British literature.

She allowed that the Old English can be “a struggle and a challenge” for her students, drawn largely from farm communities surrounding Greenville, a town just off Interstate 70 east of St. Louis, near Carlyle Lake. But she loves when her students understand the work enough to “recognize the masterpiece that it is,” sometimes retelling an incident and saying, “That was amazing.”

Over the course of the semester class, Stowers teaches “Beowulf,” “Macbeth,” and “Frankenstein.”

“They’re some tough texts, but they enjoy them and really get into them,” Stowers said in a phone interview Friday during the holiday break. Her favorite of the three is “Beowulf,” she added, “because of this idea of the epic hero.” She said it teaches “a good life lesson on what it means to be a good person, because of these traits that the epic hero has to follow to be deemed an epic hero.”

Permit an outsider to suggest that Stowers is something of an epic hero herself as a teacher working three outside jobs to make ends meet.

Stowers is one of the teachers featured in a new series of videos put out by the Illinois Education Association on “The Real Life of Illinois Educators.” It shows her waiting tables at a pizza restaurant, working at home on an education website, and teaching as an adjunct professor at Kaskaskia College when she isn’t in her own classroom.

Having taught several years, with bumps in pay along the way, Stowers said, “I have it a little better now,” but “as a first-year teacher, I struggled horribly. The starting salary was difficult. There were a few months I didn’t make my house payment.”

She said she knows a first-year teacher at BCCHS who, while single and living with her parents, still has to take another job to pay the bills — something Stowers understands as a mother with two kids in college who is still working to pay off her own college loans of more than $100,000.

According to Stowers, teachers were in “shock” when Gov. Rauner vetoed a bill this year that would have set a minimum teaching salary of $40,000.

“As a first-year teacher, I think I was making like $24,000 — with a family,” Stowers recalled. No wonder, then, that teachers find it necessary to take outside jobs, and that Illinois has faced teacher shortages in some parts of the state.

“We’re still losing a lot of teachers, just in the first one to five years, because they didn’t really know what they were getting into,” Stowers said.

Stowers got her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, then went back to get her master’s in teaching to give her the certificate to teach in Illinois.

“With my education alone, I could find another job that makes quite a bit more money, but that isn’t where my heart is,” she said. Stowers added that many teachers feel taken for granted in that it’s assumed they’ll “do what needs to be done to stay in the field that we love.”

Making it worse is that “teachers have such a bad rep,” Stowers said, with many people dropping offhand comments on “all these days off and summers off.” She believes that’s fallout from politicians — like Rauner — who’ve made a career out of badmouthing teachers and public education.

“I think it has a lot to do with politics,” Stowers said. “I would like to see more respect for the teaching profession.”

While she isn’t expecting miracles, she said she expects things to change under Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, perhaps starting with that $40,000 minimum salary being signed into law.

“I would like to see teachers be able to survive a little bit better,” Stowers said. “If it were a little more financially beneficial, then they wouldn’t be forced — forced — to take on these other jobs.”

No teacher works 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and just goes home, she pointed out. They grade papers at night and over the weekend and prepare lessons for the following days and weeks. “For some people, it’s just impossible to get another job,” she added, “because of the workload teachers have.”

What’s more, Stowers estimated she spends at least $200 a year on classroom supplies, “because I know kids are going to come to school without them. How can we expect them to learn if they can’t take notes because they don’t have a piece of paper and a pen?”

She said she knows teachers who’ve paid for students to take correspondence courses to get the hour or two extra they might need to graduate on time, as well as teachers who’ve paid for their students’ graduation caps and gowns.

“Those are stories that the public doesn’t hear,” Stowers said.

Her students are “rural kids. A lot of them come from farming families and trade families. … Some of them are very ingrained with family and with family industry and want to stay with that.” BCCHS, Stowers added, has a robust agriculture program. Even so, she decried budget cuts routinely made to music and art, “where students can be stimulated in a free, creative way.”

Stowers grew up a self-described “army brat” whose family moved from base to base before settling in Belleville when she was in seventh grade. So you’d think she’d be comfortable moving just about anywhere, but when it came time to start her own family they looked for something outside “the bigger city … someplace a little rural, kind of out of the way.” Between a home in Highland and teaching in Greenville, with shopping nearby and St. Louis not too far away, she found it “a perfect fit for us.”

“Perfect,” that is, but for the need teachers often have to find work outside the classroom just to get by.