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Denise Finley in the classroom

Denise Finley in the classroom

July 1, 2022

‘I’m all in when it comes to education’

I could have sat back after retirement, but I go to school to cover for teachers who are working with one hand tied behind their back to keep the schools open.


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By Denise Finley

Watching my grandson sitting in online classes during the pandemic was a catalyst for me. I’m retired. I’ve been out of the classroom since 2017, but I supplemented my grandson’s education behind the scenes. I watched how teachers used platforms like Google Classroom and Zoom, and admired them for what they were doing.

Teachers are now back in the classroom, as am I as a substitute. I resolved to do everything in my power to keep students from returning to virtual learning. I could have sat back after retirement, but I go to school to cover for teachers who are working with one hand tied behind their back to keep the schools open.

I intended to return to the classroom slowly, but the demand was too great because many teachers were no longer present.
Finley’s grandson, Peyton, during a virtual lesson.

Finley’s grandson, Peyton, during a virtual lesson.

I moved to Kentucky in the 1980s. When I started teaching, the schools were ranked 49th in the country. Then a lawsuit over inequities in Kentucky school funding led to the passage of the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act. I decided I could either sit on the sidelines or make it better and get in the fight. I joined the fight along with hundreds of other educators. We spent countless hours in professional development and training to improve education. We also fought for better pay, pensions and healthcare, all the things that would attract people to the classroom. Eventually, we moved education up the ranks.

Today, we have an “education first” governor in Andy Beshear. Although the governor prioritized teacher pay in his proposed budget, the Republican-held Legislature left out mandatory raises across the board for teachers in its final budget. That’s unfortunate because an article in the online publication, The Center Square, reported that a study by the National Education Association showed Kentucky teachers continue to fall behind their peers in terms of salary.

My union, AFT Kentucky 120 United, wrote a letter to The Center Square, stating that the report was no surprise. “It’s a 14-year tradition: Teachers have not seen a meaningful, state-mandated salary increase since 2008, and when adjusted for inflation, the average salary for Kentucky’s classroom teachers has fallen nearly $5,000 over the last 14 years,” the article states.

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These days, I’m substituting in various classes, from physical education and music to STEM classes. I’m using some of the newer technology in the classroom, and I love what I’m doing. I can tell when the virus is raging because that’s when I’m getting multiple requests to substitute.

I use social media to share which classes I’m teaching each day to get other retirees to cover classes, too, because we need them.

I could sub every day because there is such a high demand, but if I go to work every day, I might as well go back to teaching. I’m 63 years old, and as a retired teacher, being a substitute has been incredible, even though the biggest challenge for me is the risk of getting COVID-19. The work provides flexibility and additional pay, but that is not why I do it. I’m an excellent teacher. I can attend to my students and colleagues in any classroom. That is the reason I do it. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with my co-workers.

Being back in the classroom has allowed me to see things from both sides: I see teachers afraid to speak out, so they leave the classroom. I also know that we can’t have in-person learning without following public health rules outside of the school. We can’t have it both ways. In-person learning requires us to mask up or get vaccinated.

We all have to do this together. We can’t do this by ourselves.

AFT Kentucky 120 United stands with active and retired members too. I don’t think people realize the power of the union and our collective voice to advocate for students and teachers. I don’t think any of us know that all the little things we do during the day are so important. Every minute counts when we work with the children.

I realize that working as a substitute is not a long-term solution to our classrooms’ problems in Kentucky and across the nation, especially when nearly 300,000 teachers leave the profession every year. The best solution is to value teachers and pay them what they are worth. Until then, I will continue to do my part and substitute, because I’m all in when it comes to education.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

Denies Finley subbing for P.E.

About the Author

Denise Finley is a retired member of AFT Kentucky 120 United.

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