Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Teachers Deserve Competitive Salaries and Benefits

From 1995 through 2002, I taught over two dozen college classes in English. Most of my experience was in introductory composition, but I also taught short-fiction, business writing, and linguistics (my favorite).

I left teaching in 2002 for a non-academic position after a year of adjuncting at a local college and supporting one of the school's programs. In that year, I also worked at another place teaching English as a Second Language to Korean children. Although I taught only a couple of hours per night, the pay rate was significantly higher than the college gig. Neither situation offered benefits. My total annual income was about $28-$32K.

It was a joke, that salary.

After teaching, my first full-time job was $38K per year, plus benefits. I thought at the time that the money was great. What's more, I enjoyed being able to drive from the workplace at the end of the day and not have to continue working into the night. When I taught, I felt mentally and emotionally indentured around the clock with grading, class preparation, conferences, student issues, and school issues.

As I got smarter about the non-academic job market and my own marketability, I moved ahead quickly enough. My salary increases went something like this: 38 -> 41 -> 74 -> 88 -> 95. I pull in low six figures now. I have decent benefits. I work at the office and at home, too, yet I have a semblance of work-life balance.

I recently returned from a trip to my old university, where I had just passed my doctoral candidacy exams. My dissertation director was telling me about how the university was committed to offering at least $50K to new hires in the department. Imagine that, only $50K for a person with a doctorate and a full teaching load.

I left teaching for many reasons. I left academia generally because I didn't see a fast enough path to fair compensation. I wanted to earn what my students would earn. I wanted to have money to buy a home and raise a family. I wanted all of this sooner rather than later.

This is the context from which I read Eggers and Calegari in their NYT piece, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries." Here's the money part (pun intended):
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.
I have relatives and friends in the military or on a police force. I respect these professions, but the people in them can be over-the-top with the "respect our sacrifice" lines. Teachers sacrifice every bit as much as soldiers and cops, yet they get no social respect whatsoever.

There's no heroism in a sacrifice you don't make willingly, and so I left teaching as a full-time vocation. Why should I have left money on the table? Why should I have denied myself to a lifestyle similar to that of my peers? Why should I have condemned myself to decades of financial strain? I still teach a literature class at the local college on some mornings, but basically I am out of the profession. Too bad. It's good and important work. I bet lots of our best and brightest would love to teach if the opportunity were made competitive with non-academic positions.


  1. > Teachers sacrifice every bit as much as soldiers and cops

    I agree that teachers should get better compensation, but typically nobody is shooting at teachers.

  2. "typically nobody is shooting at teachers."

    As with soldiers, it depends where one is stationed.

    Unlike soldiers, teachers don't get to carry guns.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.