Teaching is tough — so why not offer ‘hazard pay’ at high-stress schools?

A tentative contract deal between the Wichita school district and service workers includes a new incentive for employees who work at some of the district’s most challenging schools — Greiffenstein, Wells, Sowers and Gateway.

Custodians, security guards and para-educators at those schools, which serve children with mental illness, emotional disturbances and those who have been suspended from other schools, would make an additional 50 cents an hour under the proposed contract.

A kind of “hazard pay,” union officials said, for braving classrooms that can be grueling, exhausting and at times even dangerous.

“People don’t realize how intense the situation can be with some of those student populations,” said Esau Freeman, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 513, which represents about 2,000 school district employees.

“Unions have heard from staff who were being injured regularly and just dealing with incredibly difficult things,” he said. “We feel like premium pay for those buildings would reward people who are ambitious enough to get in there and give it a shot.”

Local teachers-union leaders have warned for years that out-of-control kids are driving some educators out of the profession. Research confirms that most teachers experience job-related stress that can lead to burnout and affect student performance.

Contract terms such as incentive pay for challenging assignments are a step in the right direction — and should be offered to Wichita teachers as well.

“One of the things we identified was that it really takes a special individual to work with these populations of kids with special needs,” Freeman said. “You can’t just change the kids overnight.”

Wichita once offered bonuses — $1,500 a year — to teachers who worked in the district’s highest-poverty schools. School board members did away with that incentive in 2009 as part of cost-cutting measures aimed at saving teaching positions.

Now that Kansas lawmakers have approved a five-year, $525 million increase to school funding, districts like Wichita can and should reinstate additional pay for teachers working in the highest-stress situations.

Wichita teachers are starting the school year without a contract, after representatives for the district and United Teachers of Wichita declared an impasse in negotiations last month. A federal mediator has been appointed to settle the dispute.

At issue is teacher pay, as always, but also workload issues that are crucial to teacher retention. Three years ago, the union organized a first-ever “Contract Day,” during which teachers were urged to work only the hours required in their contract — no more, no less — to illustrate how much they do during off-hours.

District officials have acknowledged that stress can affect teachers’ physical and emotional health. A professional development session last year focused on compassion fatigue and self-care. The district also has offered finder’s fees and signing bonuses for certain hard-to-fill vacancies.

Teaching isn’t easy anywhere, particularly in urban districts like Wichita, where many students come from homes affected by trauma and poverty. But alternative schools are especially challenging, and the brave men and women who work there should be duly compensated.