We Get What We Pay For

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Time magazine recently featured a cover with the image of a teacher declaring that she has to work three jobs and donate plasma to make it with her salary as a teacher. It’s being posted on Facebook by many of my fellow educators and is causing a bit of a firestorm among those who choose to comment. The question of how much to pay teachers has been a hot topic for as long as I can recall, and it centers around the fact that public school teachers’ salaries are paid by taxes, which sometimes means that higher pay only comes with higher taxes. Aside from the trutth that the education of our children is important to virtually all of us, the fact that we all must pay for the men and women who teach them makes our interest in what those numbers will be even more intense than with most other professions. The discussions that generally ensue invariably devolve into arguments over how much time teachers actually spend working and the relative worth of their talents and skills. The arguments take on an almost mythical aspect with emotions running high on both sides. It’s difficult to form reasoned conclusions in such highly charged environments.

So what are the objective truths about being a teacher? That is a loaded question that varies with each person’s experiences in classrooms, but there are general characteristics. First, there are distinct levels of teaching, each of which has unique value for society. Someone entering the field specializes in either early childhood, elementary, middle or high school. While the public has a tendency to view high school teachers as the elite, the truth is that working with the youngest of our children requires special talents and knowledge that many of us simply do not have. In my own case, I quickly learned that I did not have the patience needed to spend a lifetime inside an elementary classroom. Nor did I want to expend the countless extra hours planning lessons for six different subjects and constantly grading mountains of papers and sorting them to be sent home to parents. In all honesty I worked far harder when I was in charge of a fourth grade classroom than when I taught a particular level of mathematics over and over again all day long as a middle or high school teacher. Yet in the eyes of the public I realized that I carried far more prestige as someone who taught Algebra than I had when I was juggling the countless responsibilities of an elementary teacher. Nonetheless, the foundational skills that I was teaching my fourth graders would be critical for their academic development, and it bothers me when I hear comments that elementary teachers are no doubt doing little more than teaching children to color inside the lines. The bottom line is that each teaching position is critically important to the successful outcome of every child who matriculates through the system. 

Teachers officially work about 180 days each school year. The key word is “officially.” While there are many who give no more and no less than that number of days in the classroom, the majority of educators rarely spend only the required number of hours in conjunction with their jobs. Teachers have lessons to plan, papers to grade, conferences with parents to attend, training sessions to enhance qualifications, school events to manage, and a host of other duties that spill into their so called off the clock hours. I estimate that the average teacher arrives at school around 7:30 in the morning and does not leave before 4:00 or 4:30 on most days. They spend an additional three or four hours (sometimes more) each evening attending to the various duties described above. It is not unusual for them to devote entire days of the weekend to their jobs on weekends as well. English teachers may need even more time to grade essays that must be read with great care. Coaches and sponsors of clubs seem to almost live at schools in certain seasons, often with the school year beginning for them in the middle of the summer. Little of this extra time is ever considered when determining just how much teachers make per hour. If it ever were the results would be shocking, and in many cases revealing that some teachers actually make less than minimum wage when every hour is factored into the equation.

The beginning salary of a teacher varies from state to state and even district to district. In general it is about midway between fifty and sixty thousand dollars which may sound somewhat generous, but the reality is that it remains somewhat stagnant over time. Annual raises tend to be minimal when they occur at all. Even earning an advanced degree makes little or no difference in pay. Most teachers actually begin to lose ground in terms of income the longer that they teach. Benefits also tend to be minimal and health insurance policies are often more costly and less generous than those of workers in other fields. Some states have excellent pensions, but others provide minimal coverage for retirees. Those who are devoted to a vocation in education do so knowing that they will never be rich. In fact, a lifetime career in teaching works best if it is supplemented with a spouse’s salary.

Public school teachers are dependent upon the largesse of the government and in particular the tax payers. This is the main reason that many argue that educators need to provide more bang for the buck to earn higher salaries. There is also an ongoing argument that other public sector employees often do not make as much as teachers even when their contributions to society may be more dangerous or more valuable. In response to such contentions I would argue that the very foundation of our social, political and economic society is built upon the education of our children. If we are to progress we must invest in our schools. Creating financial difficulties for our teachers creates a crisis that we need not endure. Right now most parents wince if their children even hint that they may want to enter the teaching profession There is something terribly wrong when what should be the noblest of careers is held in such low esteem. Providing teachers with a fair wage that allows them to live a respectable life would do wonders to change such perceptions.

I was an educator for the entirety of my adult life. I retired with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I never made a great deal of money and my pension is nothing to brag about when compared to other professions. I can’t afford the terrible healthcare supplement offered by the state for teacher retirees, but I’ve found a suitable replacement from AARP. I live comfortably mostly because of the income that my husband has brought into the picture during his working years. I had the luxury of enjoying my work every single day because I was not solely dependent on the salaries that would never have allowed me to live without fear. There is something very wrong about the idea that our nations’ teachers are so undervalued that most of them cannot survive without infusions of additional income. We all need to be concerned. If we don’t adequately address this issue we may soon find ourselves squandering the talents our most precious resource, our children. They depend on us to keep our schools running smoothly. It’s time we faced the reality that we get what we pay for. Our teachers should not have to be more altruistic than their well educated working peers.

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