Image: Greta Voit, teacher in New Berlin, Wis.
David Friedman  /  msnbc.com
Greta Voit teaches physics at New Berlin West High School in New Berlin, Wis.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/6/2011 2:12:07 PM ET 2011-04-06T18:12:07

Greta Voit knew she wanted to be a teacher before she had even started elementary school.

Four years into her teaching career, she sometimes finds herself re-evaluating her choice.

“I’m looking at, should I stay in education, or is this not the profession that I thought I was getting into?” she said one recent evening.

Voit, 27, loves teaching high school physics, regularly referring to it as "a blast" or saying things like, "I love the kids."

But that love of being in the classroom has recently been overshadowed by what's going on outside the classroom: A sweeping state effort to cut collective bargaining rights of teachers and other unionized government workers in her home state of Wisconsin. It's a potentially drastic change that has left her uneasy about everything from shrinking paychecks to swelling class sizes.

  1. Faces of the public sector
    1. The end of an era?

      Public union workers have become targets of politicians, pundits and ordinary citizens who think their salaries are too high and their jobs too cushy.

    2. Loud and clear

      A Connecticut fire dispatcher says his union wages have kept him solidly 'lower middle class." But, he says, "I didn’t take this job to get rich."

    3. Trash talk

      A Delaware sanitation worker considers taking a second job to make ends meet. He bemoans shrill anti-union talk: "They don’t know half of what our jobs entail."

    4. Taught a lesson

      A Wisconsin teacher wonders — four years into the career she's wanted her entire life — if she made the right choice as the state attacks her union.

“This isn’t the career that my mom went into 35 years ago,” she said.

Voit, her mother, her sister and her future brother-in-law — all teachers — also have been shaken to hear people characterize teachers as lazy, overpaid and the ones to blame for the state's financial problems.

“You feel like you’re being vilified. I never anticipated that that would be the turn of events,” said Diane Voit, Greta’s mother and a high school business education teacher. “What did we do?”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said the changes are necessary to fix the state’s financial woes. Democrats fled the state rather than vote on the bill, arguing that it was a ruse to break unions. Tens of thousands protesters, including Voit, stormed the state capital of Madison for weeks.

Republicans eventually were able to push through the bill, although it has been stalled by legal challenges.The new law would require nearly all public sector workers to contribute more to pensions and health insurance, reducing their take-home pay. It also would prohibit many public union workers, including teachers, to collectively bargain for wage increases that are any higher than inflation.

Other states, including Ohio, Florida and Idaho, have taken up similar efforts.

From playing school to teaching school
As early as age 4, Greta Voit remembers playing school in the basement with her sister Sarah, complete with lesson plans and class schedules.

The sisters went on to be teachers, both snagging teachers’ union scholarships toward college.

Before she graduated, Voit landed a job as a physics teacher at New Berlin West High School, in a comfortable, mostly suburban town outside Milwaukee.

The New Berlin school district denied repeated requests for msnbc.com to accompany Voit in the classroom, and the school’s principal did not return calls for comment on other issues.

Voit figured the job would mark the start of a career that would be steady and rewarding, if not particularly lucrative.

Voit makes $39,831 a year as a fourth-year teacher who will complete a master’s degree this summer. She said her teacher’s salary affords her a comfortable, if not extravagant, lifestyle, but there’s little extra for savings or big vacations.The average annual salary for public school teachers in Wisconsin is around $49,000, reflecting their generally long tenure.

She was valedictorian of her high school class, and academic scholarships allowed her to graduate from the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh without any student loan debt.

Three years ago, she used some money that had been set aside for college to buy a small house in her hometown of Waukesha, one town away from where she teaches. Her father has been helping her fix it up.

Image: Greta Voit, teacher in New Berlin, Wisc.
David Friedman  /  msnbc.com
The Voit family's two generations of public school teachers discuss labor issues around the dining table in Waukesha, Wisc., on Monday, March 21, 2011. From left are Diane Voit, her daughters Greta Voit and Sarah Voit, far right, and Sarah's fiancee Patrick Detmer. (David Friedman / msnbc.com)

For now, it’s not clear how the changes being proposed will affect her salary and benefits because a final plan hasn't yet been presented to teachers.

Still, Voit is prepared to start paying about 12 percent of her health insurance premium, and possibly to change health care plans. She also expects that she will have to contribute about 5.8 percent of her salary toward her pension, a benefit previously paid by her employer. In previous years, Voit said the union had asked for the pension payments in lieu of salary increases.

Worries over class sizes, safety issues
The cuts to her take-home pay are a concern, but Voit and her fellow teachers also fret about how a steep reduction in the union’s power will affect other things the union fights for, such as smaller class sizes, curriculum preparation time and layoff procedures.

Voit, who serves as vice president of the union for her school district, also is embroiled in a fight over a decision to stop paying teachers to supervise some extracurricular activities.

At a recent meeting of union representatives in the district, one teacher worried about how he could push to fix potential safety issues in the chemistry labwithout the union’s backing. There also was the question of whether workers would still be able to donate extra sick time to seriously ill co-workers.

The 20-odd teachers expressed a mixture of uncertainty, frustration and fear. At one point, Diane Lazewski, president of the New Berlin Education Association and a teacher in the district for 18 years, urged teachers to consider whether another district would treat them better.

“I think you deserve more,” she told the teachers gathered in a local pub.

‘You get people who go out there and say you’re lazy’
Voit and her family say they find themselves being criticized, even from friends, who think they are overpaid and underworked.

“It’s a little surreal,” said Patrick Detmer, Sarah Voit’s fiancé and a third grade special education teacher in New Berlin. “When I was in college ... all I heard was, ‘It’s not a profession where you’re going to make a lot of money, but you’re to going to enjoy what you do.’ The worst part (now is) you get people who go out there and say you’re lazy or you don’t do a lot.”

Patrick and Sarah, both 25 and in their second year of teaching, say they are young and mobile enough to factor in a drop in their take-home pay as they plot their financial future. They joke about moving in with Greta and planting vegetables in the backyard of her small house to keep food on the table.

Sarah, an eighth grade special education teacher in her hometown of Waukesha, concedes that the uncertainty is stressful. Still, the couple says they have not considered leaving the teaching profession. Some days, they say, the kids are the only thing that keeps them going.

“I don’t think there’s any more of a fulfilling profession,” Detmer said.

Instead the couple is considering whether they should look for the district that will offer the best support for teachers. Sarah has put off getting a master’s degree because she worries that the extra pay the advanced degree commands will make it more difficult for her to find a job.

Getting an education, going into education
Growing up on a farm with parents who only had an eighth-grade education, Diane Voit, 57, never even planned to go to college. Then a high school guidance counselor took her aside and said she showed potential.

That, combined with a teachers’ union scholarship, put her on the path to becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. Her sister also ended up becoming a teacher.

Diane, who teaches at Waukesha North High School, had considered taking an early retirement package this year. But recently she decided to keep teaching because she doesn't want to let the fight over wages and collective bargaining determine her future.

“I refuse to let the current situation and the governor bully me into giving up a career that I’ve enjoyed for 30 years,” she said.

For Greta, the future may be less certain. She knows she wants to help people, but she increasingly wonders if teaching is the best way to do that. She’s considered law school, in part because her experience with the union and school district has gotten her more interested in social justice and advocating for others.

She doesn’t expect that she’ll ever choose a career that carries a fat paycheck, but she said that is less important to her than a career that is rewarding and offers good working conditions.

“Finding fulfillment in my career is, to me, much more important than the compensation,” she said.

At the same time, she thinks teachers deserve to make enough to live comfortably and raise a family.

“I don’t think that it’s somehow unreasonable to go into education and not have to live in poverty,” she said.

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