Recently, I have had a few conversations with fellow teachers that have caused me to, once again, consider why it is that I have dedicated my life to public education. To be honest, I don’t know if I would stick with teaching if I was just starting out today. The pay on average is not as good as it once was. For example, when I started teaching in 2002, my starting pay was $42,000. This was a decent salary for a teacher fresh out of college with no kids and cheap rent. When I left California in 2007, I was making just over $50,000. However, as I have moved to a new state and have started over in a new school district, next year I will be making just slightly under the salary I was earning in 2007. Over the last fifteen years, I have gained fifteen more years of experience as an educator and a Master’s degree. Yet in my current school system, only nine years of previous experience are accepted for salary placement. By starting in a new school system, I lost ten years of experience in regards to my salary. In looking at the salary schedule for the next school year, I would be making $63,000 a year in comparison if my years of service were accepted.
Even though this pay is quite a substantial bit more than what I will be receiving, the pay is not commensurate with the cost of living in the area of the state where I currently reside. Many people in local communities often forget that teachers often have to work multiple jobs just to be able to make ends meet. With the cost of living increasing along with inflation, many teachers cannot afford to buy a house, let alone live in the community where they teach. This has caused a disconnect to happen between public school educators and their students along with the school community. Because of the distance between where I live and where I teach, I am unable to attend football games, school musicals, and choir concerts. Last week, one of my students even offered to pay for my gas just so I could attend her final choir concert. This is a sad reality for public educators today.
Because of the low pay across the nation, many teachers are choosing to leave the classroom for higher paying jobs. Over this last year, I have heard of several teachers, many of them new to education, who are leaving the craft because they have been offered positions in higher paying industries. Some are going to be working for yearbook companies, others will be taking positions as administrative assistants, and others are beginning to sell real estate. Unfortunately, many of these new teachers have had a large impact on their student populations. Students across the nation are losing the opportunity to learn from some of the best and the brightest teachers, but because teachers are often seen as glorified babysitters, the pay is not significant enough to retain these educators.
Along with the low pay, teachers are often mistreated and misunderstood by many in their school communities. This sometimes start within the school itself. At my previous school, many of my colleagues were mistreated by the administration in the school building. Sadly, many of these teachers were women and several of the administrators were men. This is not always the case; however, in this specific situation, some of my colleagues were told that they were hysterical or too emotional simply because they were expressing their concerns about certain situations happening both with other teachers and with parents in the community. In the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, one close friend left teaching altogether because she was bullied by school administration by teaching at home instead of in the school building due to health concerns that would be exacerbated by close proximity with those who may be carrying the virus. During this last school year, another friend left the school where we taught together because over the last five years, she has been overlooked as a strong educator and has been the victim of a narcissist who surrounds himself by “yes men” and “yes women.”
Along with conflicts within the school building, many teachers become victims of parents and members of their school communities. Unfortunately, not all parents reach out directly to teachers when they have a conflict about grades. This is especially true in high performing schools, such as the one where I currently teach. A few weeks ago, I was confronted by one of our guidance counselors with a question about a student’s grade. Ordinarily, I have no problem with this type of conversation. However, instead of contacting me directly, this parent chose to reach out to the counselor. The situation could have been handled between the two of us directly, but sometimes parents do not trust the teacher or feel that they need to go above the teacher’s head to get the answer they are looking for. This demonstrates a severe lack of connection between school and home. I concede that not all teachers are easy to communicate with, and in fact, some take a bit too long to even respond to parent concerns. However, for most of us, we want to communicate with parents, and when parents bypass direct communication it can cause teachers to feel that they are not seen as professionals who are able to handle conflicts with students directly with parents.
To be honest, most teachers are afraid to publicly express the frustrations that I have listed above. They are worried that someone from their local school board will find out about their grievances and find a way to tarnish the teacher’s reputation to the point that they will be forced to resign. Others are concerned that an administrator will hear about it and will begin to make the life of the teacher miserable (trust me, I’ve seen it happen too many times). Sadly, as I write this post, I have anxieties of my own. I work in a community of mostly upper-middle class families, and unfortunately, these areas of the country are often the worst in the way that they view teachers. To some, we are seen as second class citizens who can be threatened with our pay, our benefits, our retirement, and our reputations in the community.
So if the pay isn’t that great, why do I teach? If the community doesn’t always value what I do for students, why do I teach? The simple answer is that this is my calling and always has been. Teaching is not just a job for me; it is who I am. As I wrap up the school year for the twentieth time, I am looking forward to next year. I am already beginning to plan how I will revamp my American Literature curriculum to meet the needs of primarily vocational school students. For the first time in my career, I will be teaching the concurrent composition class with our local community college. So, over the last few days, I have been rereading a rhetoric textbook as a way to prepare for next year. Based on my experience in my new school this year, I am beyond excited for what next year will hold as I enter my twenty-first year of teaching.
So, why do I stick with teaching when so many of my colleagues are leaving the craft? It’s not because I have a martyr complex, and it’s not because I can’t do anything else. Teaching gives me purpose as I help my students to develop skills that they will use in their futures. Teaching energizes me to expand my own understanding of my discipline. Teaching challenges me to find ways to reach students who are consistently on the margins of society. It is never boring. Everyday is different. It is a challenge, but it is more rewarding intrinsically than I could describe.
As I reflect on the conflicts I see with public education and the way that teachers are viewed by many in society today, I hope that more teachers will express their concerns. I hope that more teachers will be able to communicate publicly their passion for the craft in such a way that others will be inspired to support public education and those of us who have dedicated our lives to the benefit of not only our students but also our future as a nation. Ultimately, teachers determine the course of our society. We teach history, we teach mathematics, we teach reading and writing, we teach the sciences, we teach practical arts. Beyond these academic subjects, we teach empathy, kindness, grace, forgiveness, patience, and joy. As long as our nation continues to downplay the value of teachers, we will continue to lose some of the best educators who cannot accept being mistreated, underpaid, and underappreciated.
I hope that I will continue to hold on for several more years, but I have to be honest, in this political climate it is becoming more difficult to balance the benefits with the costs of teaching in secondary education. If things do not improve, I will probably move out of K-12 education into higher education, a transition that I am beginning next year. However, as I look forward to another graduation ceremony with the amazing class of 2022, I am choosing to focus on today, a day of celebration. A celebration for our students, for their parents and families, for our school community, and for our educators. Despite the hostile environments in which we teach and learn, we have done it yet again. Job well done!