With all respect to the folks behind the counter at the local video store, this guy seemed way overqualified for the job. I was at Potomac Video picking up a flick for the kids, and when my son asked about a title, the clerk wowed us with a lesson on the filmmaker and what to look for in the movie.
It turned out that the clerk was really a high school English teacher moonlighting for a few extra bucks.
That teacher, Alex Horwitz, has since left the field to try out the movie business, but all too many other teachers are out there this summer -- and on weekends and evenings during the school year -- working second, third and fourth jobs so they can keep teaching your kids.
This summer, Lorelei Emma, a 28-year-old special-ed teacher at Columbia Elementary in Annandale, teaches summer school in the mornings, tutors, dog-sits, house-sits and drives out to Lexington each weekend to work at her family's flower shop. Even with all that, and with mom's help on her student loan and car payments, Emma lives in a small bedroom with no closet in a Fairlington house she shares with two roommates.
Last week, Emma applied for work at a Whole Foods store -- she and her teacher buddies call it "Whole Paycheck" -- "because maybe I could get a discount on groceries there."
"I love my kids, and I love teaching, but I can't afford it," Emma says. "I can't be a 30-year-old and expect my mom to keep paying for my car." With a master's degree and four years of experience, Emma makes $49,000 in the Fairfax schools. But housing and other costs in this area make seemingly decent salaries feel like poverty wages.
"Nobody does this work to get rich," Emma says. "And people expect to have to work summers. What they don't expect is that during the school year, when I'm working 12 to 14 hours a day on school, I'm also tutoring and working at the flower shop. It gets very exhausting. It's hard to imagine doing it in 10 years or after I have children."
So Emma is taking the GRE exam, "just to see what else I can do."
Mary Beth Kochman, head of the English department at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, is surrounded at class reunions at the University of Pennsylvania by lawyers and business executives who hardly notice their monthly payments on student loans. (Back in school, classmates sometimes asked her, "Why are you here if you're only going to become a teacher?" Only?)
Kochman has to find $300 a month to put toward her loans. She's managed to take on extra jobs related to her career -- teacher training, for example -- but after a decade of teaching, she can't buy a house, travel or live a lifestyle that matches her peers'.
"I am constantly thinking about whether or not I can afford to buy a book from Borders, eat out more than a certain number of times per week, or go away for a weekend," she says.
Kochman always knew that teaching would not be an easy life. She notes that some of her students have far more difficult lives. "I have taught students who have lived in cars, escaped war in other countries, dealt with multiple deaths at a young age," she says.
And she's quick to add that she loves her work. Still, she and other teachers I spoke to find it hard to reconcile political slogans about the importance of education with the reality of a society in which teachers cannot afford to live where they teach.
"What are the basic things you need to survive? Good health and a good education," says Paige Byrne, an art teacher at Horace Mann Elementary in the District. Yet to make ends meet, Byrne, whose husband teaches art at Georgetown Day School, offers after-school classes and built up a weekend catering business. And they've done sales work at a Georgetown antique shop in exchange for gallery space for their artwork.
The Byrnes don't want to move away, but they do want to own a house.
The nation's schools have never adapted to losing their near-monopoly on working women. That history, in which teaching was usually a family's supplemental income, explains why schools are so far behind in paying for top workers.
How to turn it around? Two ways: Wait for things to get so much worse that the nation must launch a Manhattan Project to revive its schools. Or start now by persuading voters that paying for stronger teachers is a great investment -- it's the real homeland security.