Time published a feature this week about the state of teacher pay in America. The story of teachers being underpaid for their level of education (usually master’s degree or equivalent) and hours worked is nothing new. The story highlights the ambivalence teachers feel about their jobs–the powerful, emotional, almost spiritual call to educate young people and the humiliation of being unable to live as a respectable middle class professional. The major flaw of our educational system is that it cannot function without the extra contractual contributions of those employed by it.
The system depends on the personal (and financial) sacrifice of teachers.
I am in my 15th year of post-collegiate full time employment; I have spent 13 of those years in a classroom as a teacher (although three of them were in another country). I absolutely love teaching. There is no greater feeling in the world than having a front row seat to kids learning and knowing you were a small part of that process. However, in recent years, I often felt that I had to choose between giving to my students and to my own children. I don’t think teachers should be in that position; I certainly don’t want my children’s teachers to feel burdened by that choice.
When I was growing up, I believed that making career (or any) decision based on anything as crass as “salary” or “benefits” was inferior to idealistic pursuit of passion, artistic vision, and altruism. I wanted to make the world a better, more beautiful, more intelligent place. I thought people who accumulated wealth and pursued high salaries were morally flawed. I recognize now that this kind of belief is bred from growing up in economic abundance and educational privilege (both of my parents had Ph.D.s), but also my parents fostered a healthy sense of idealism about work. They volunteered with Peace Corps and worked in careers that served the public good, rather than for commercial gain (though offered lucrative positions to work for tobacco companies or in weapons development).
As my college graduation loomed, I became more practical. I didn’t want to continue to be economically dependent on my parents, but I had followed my intellectual passions and chosen courses of study that were less financially rewarded than the sciences. I realized that as much as I would love to be an artist (writer or theater at the time), I couldn’t survive without consistent health benefits and was crap at competitive self-promotion (a component of success in those fields). I was interested in becoming a college professor in the humanities, but the cutthroat nature of graduate school for many years, only to end up not being able to have much control over where you lived or worked (because only three tenure-track positions in your area exist in the country) was unappealing.
There is a cultural pressure on young people to view work and employment as spiritual fulfillment rather than contractual exchange. It can lead to exploitation.
I spent some time figuring out what I could do that would allow me to work with the passion I valued and still eke out a reasonable lifestyle (I was fine with frugality, but health benefits were a nonnegotiable for me). I decided I would try public school teaching; if I hated it, I would stop. I loved it. However, teaching in America, like the professionals profiled in the article, burned me out (more than once) with its extreme demands and compensation that necessitated second jobs.
Why leave teaching?
I recently accepted a promotion to a leadership position in education, coordinating a large program for my school district. A major reason I pursued leadership positions outside of the classroom was the need to increase my salary to remain the sole income provider for our family. (Yes, younger me would have said I was “selling out,” but that’s too simplistic). While I know I am still contributing to the good of public education–and in some ways I have greater influence, my new position more appropriately compensates the time and expertise I provide, thus taking fewer resources (emotional and financial) from my own family.
Our culture has not yet changed the commonplace expectation of personal sacrifice for the average teacher. If anything, this expectation is worse than when I started teaching 15 years ago, because now teachers are supposed to be human shields against gun violence in schools while also educating every student to pass demanding tests of skills that build on skills they never mastered in previous grades. As a teacher, I saw minimal changes in salary or benefits from when I began, despite my increased skills and experience. While this has been true of other middle class professions during this same time period, few professionals are so demonized for stating this truth out loud.
How do we fix it?
I believe our country could reform the duties and compensation of teachers to enable educators to do their jobs without disadvantaging their own families, thus making it a more attractive profession to talented, ambitious young people from a variety of backgrounds. It’s simple: increase salaries and planning time; reduce class sizes and testing. This would require a significant commitment of public funds, which we are unwilling to give. For now, teaching will only be attractive to people who do not need to care about supporting families (or even themselves unless they are frugal) through their work. I fully support educators’ efforts to use collective bargaining to obtain appropriate compensation and more reasonable working conditions. Unfortunately, most of the people in power right now don’t care much about changing the status quo of education.
Students deserve educators who are treated and paid like the highly skilled professionals they are.
Until then, I will continue to balance my idealistic commitment to public education with the very real need to support my own family (and sanity) through work. However, I no longer judge those who leave the profession to pursue more lucrative careers. They aren’t less committed to the students they educate, they just can’t sacrifice any more.