Nurses and Teachers

Nurses and Teachers

American culture is happy to be distracted by momentary heroes, people who grab the public’s attention for a good deed or a good score and then slip under the frigid seas of anonymity once again. But what about the real heroes? Sad to say, we pay almost no attention to them at all and much of the time we treat them far worse than the shades of sudden anonymity. We consign them to a low caste status, underpay them, even blame them for ills they did not cause.

The heroes I’m speaking of are not only the firemen, the soldiers, the emergency responders, the cops on the beat – though they can be heroic indeed.

I’m referring to those heroes – nurses and teachers – who, day in and day out in our society, work honorably and indispensably without recognition, without wage security, and often under the pressure of enmity or neglect.

Both share a similar plight. Both professions are seen as predominately work done by women, so misogyny has something to do with their status. And they both work in what the upper classes apparently see as semi-menial jobs. And they both are paid abysmally below the level of their importance. We cannot live without them, yet we treat them as if their work were not what it is – a noble calling. It’s an example of our country’s botched up system of values – we pay bankers and money magicians who do little but rake in fortunes-beyond-counting for themselves, while the people who literally save our lives and help raise our children are beleaguered and gypped of good wages, and treated like worthless and incompetent drudges.

Nurses and teachers, of course, face different challenges. Teachers in New Mexico must teach children in the poorest state in the union, which is at the bottom of the 50 states in child well-being, according to New Mexico Voices for Children. And over 30 percent of our children are living with food insecurity. Undernourished, and impoverished children simply cannot learn as well as children who are well fed and not suffering from the insidious undermining reality of poverty. As pediatrician Lance Chilton told the Mercury audience on Insight New Mexico earlier this year, malnutrition undermines brain functioning. 

Instead of accusing poorly paid teachers of being incompetent because they can’t whip up a population of students to pass dubious tests of their proficiency, the Martinez administration might admit we are a poor and hungry state, and get to work trying to do something about it, instead of bleeding public education dry and demoralizing its teachers, destroying an existing public system to make money for private education corporations.

It is absurd for politicians, educational corporate managers, or the health system to equate the efforts of teachers and nurses with outcomes. There is an intermediary in both cases – the student and the patient who largely determine outcomes, as all teachers and nurses know.

Imagine if nurses were held responsible for the health outcomes of their patients, as the Martinez administration, and its out of state money bags, want to hold teachers accountable for the learning outcomes of their students.  If that sounds ridiculous, it is. But of course, nurses live with the ever present pressure of being blamed for the failing health of patients. Because most of them are women, and because they are poorly paid, they suffer from gender and class discrimination. So do teachers.

Teachers, and the unions they form to support their professional expertise against ignorant intrusion, understand that you can’t force a child to learn anymore than you can force a patient to get well. 

But this is what we’ve come to in this country. We’re so mean spirited and our values are so twisted by Republican propaganda that some of us are hoodwinked into thinking that education works like a sweat shop, and that health care is a matter of costly miracle interventions rather than devoted, consistent attention by professionals who put their compassion and expertise on the line every day. It’s the same basic philosophy that sees wanton luxury for the chosen few and crippling austerity for all the rest of us as an honorable form of social justice.

What a mess we’re in. Republicans see children and the rest of us as ciphers to manipulate into passing test scores and accepting low wage work while, it’s sad to say, many Democrats have forgotten their heritage of opposition to such ideas, and can’t remember what it means to throw a knockout punch.

Compared with the dynamism and hopefulness of the l940s – with the GI Bill, the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe, the Federal Highway Act of l944, among others – America 70 years later has become a country that seems not to be able do anything, or flat out won’t try to do anything, a country that can’t even make what it buys. And worse, the people in our country who do labor at something more than making money, and work for the good of the rest of us, are treated like trash.

In our state, an average wage for a nurse is $58, 000 a year. That ranges over the salaries of such vital professionals as cardiac catheterization nurses, pediatric emergency room nurses, and neonatal intensive care nurses. A surgeon in New Mexico can earn around $201,000 on average in New Mexico. Teachers average out at $41,000 a year, with elementary school teachers doing no better on average than $23,000 a year. A fully promoted, tenured professor in New Mexico can average $167,000 a year. And CEOs in our state average $133,000.

It’s not that money says much about real value, but it does give us a strong indication of social standing and respect.  As one nurse writes in the blogosphere, “Most people think that nursing is a second class profession, they thought that nurses were simply just a doctor’s assistant. Nurses collaborate with doctors in rendering life saving procedures to the client. Nurses are not totally dependent on the doctor’s order, we do have our own process in providing total care to our clients. It is in this field that nurses are being exploited and at times are compelled to work more than 8 hours a day without proper compensation.”

Any of us who’ve been sick and in a hospital know that it is the nurses that keep us alive. Their kindness, good cheer, consistent care, and empathy not only give our bodies a chance to mend, but help our emotions spur healing on. But it isn’t uncommon for one to overhear what could only be called rude and highhanded comments and commands coming down on nurses from some mighty doctor on high. That’s not the whole story but it’s certainly not unreal. Who would trust a doctor who abuses his nurses, the people who do all the hands on care of his patients? 

Most hospitals understaff nurses, so hours are long and fatigue is great. Many nurses must work extra long shifts, often to near exhaustion. Neonatal nurses are chronically understaffed, for instance, especially among “more complex and vulnerable infants. “

Hospitals treat nurses as cost centers, and, as their wages show, not as indispensable members of medical teams, the professionals on the front lines keeping doctors informed of changes and making emergency decisions often in life and death situations.

What’s really more important than nurses when you need them? And what’s more important to a society and a generation of students than their elementary school teachers, the ones who lay the groundwork for the rest of their educational experience, the ones who average $23,000 a year salary, the ones that might even have to hold two jobs to keep teaching?

Teachers have become an abused class in New Mexico. And teacher’s unions, the one champion of teacher needs and rights have been turned into evil grandstanders by the morning daily which supports Governor Martinez’s anti-teacher, anti-student, corporatization of public education in our state.

I’ve taught at the university level for nearly 30 years. So my admiration for public school teachers, who work with hundreds of students a semester, who teach as many as five classes a day, who work long into the night grading papers and preparing for the next day, is immense. I’m in awe of their stamina, their devotion to young people, and their commitment to learning despite the odds against them.

I agree with Democratic gubernatorial candidate and New Mexico Attorney General when he attacked Governor Martinez for “her harsh, unpopular, ‘reform,” education agenda.  “The Martinez education plan demonizes teachers and harms the learning experience of children on behalf of big corporations, some of whom are her donors, seeking to privatize a growing portion of public school systems for their own profit,” the King campaign said in a release.

King said that “teachers deserve our respect, not these disgraceful, campaign-driven insults….The Governor should be using her position to make our schools better, not to tear down teachers and kids.”

Teaching to test scores is an anathema to real education and healthy child development. It is treating students like widgets and teachers like assembly line operators. But that’s what “running government like a business” wants to do – turn the learning process into a manufacturing  and money-making process, and do away with troublesome individuality, creativity, and accumulation of insight and formation of opinion, the foundation of a free democratic society. Education is not a place for efficiency experts.

The bureaucratization of education is all about rigged quantified results. Rigged, because the teaching is to prepare for a prearranged test, not to prepare a student for living a useful, truly productive, and satisfying life. Tests are predictable. Life is not.

You pay elementary school teachers and long-term substitute teachers on average a mere $23,000 a year, and middle school and high school teachers on average $41,000 for working 70 to 80 hour weeks, and then harass them, nag them, look over their shoulders, give them more paper work than teaching work, and you have a profession under grave attack, and one that needs its union and its union’s clout more than ever before.  No one else is looking out for teachers. Society surely is not.

We’ve come to this in America. The rich and powerful have created a highly stratified society in which people who do the meaningless work of creating obscene fortunes are lionized as being nobler and even smarter than those who keep us alive and work to create future generations of educated citizens in a democracy. If this isn’t a villainous effort on part of the exploiting classes, I don’t know what is.


(Photos: Nurse by NC National Guard, teacher by

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

Contact V.B. Price

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