By Nínive Calegari
My friend Erik Benner, a Texas high history teacher by day, works nights and weekends hauling flooring supplies at a warehouse with a forklift. “Honestly, I am invested and I love what I do, but I am run down and exhausted. There aren’t enough hours in the day.” Teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia, are wearing jeans to work to protest their low pay and high expectations. They recently threatened to stop writing college entrance recommendation letters to try to get the point across: they don’t want to be poor to do this important work and they do far more than an honest day’s job. Most teachers pay for their own graduate school and ongoing professional training, and over 92 percent buy supplies for their students out of their own pockets. But over the past few years, we’ve seen over 60 percent of teachers working second jobs, dining with their children at food banks, and even selling their blood to make ends meet. Examples of such financial stress and strain can be found in every state in the country; quality teachers are walking away from the profession, and salaries are part of the reason they leave.
Is this the way we want any of our teachers to live? Is this what we think will lead students to higher levels of achievement?
As the founder of the Teacher Salary Project, a nonpartisan organization devoted to elevating teachers’ pay, I’ve heard countless stories of professionals who have awards and recognition for their work, yet who feel forced for financial reasons to rethink their career. I interviewed a National Board Certified teacher who also won Teacher of the Year named Karina Colon. She recently left North Carolina for a job in Maryland to earn $12,000 more to support her family.
When we undervalue a profession, we also tell the next generation of bright educators they shouldn’t bother teaching—or that if they do, they must take a vow of poverty. And students pay a price: Teachers who spend nights and weekends working other jobs cannot possibly devote the necessary attention to their students or lesson plans. Even worse, talented college students who are passionate about teaching, but seeking a stable future, opt out before they even begin. No teacher should have a second job and teachers should struggle less financially so they can focus on their critical work in the classroom.
According to a McKinsey Study called “Closing the Talent Gap,” teachers’ salaries have declined for the past 40 years. In the past decade alone, salaries have decreased further in 30 states. Had salaries grown proportionally to our classroom spending, the average salary would now be $120,000. Instead, a teacher’s starting salary is, on average, $39,000. To some this might not sound so bad — but consider this: after 25 years of teaching, 25 years of professional experience, the average salary of a teacher is $67,000. That’s less than teachers would be receiving had they chosen to be a skycap at an airport ($75,000) or an insurance appraiser ($72,000). That’s not to take anything away from these other jobs, but what message does it send to the men and women who we entrust with our children’s education, well being, and safety that we don’t truly value their contributions? Do we really expect that top college graduates will choose this profession under these conditions?
There’s another way: Imagine a world in which teacher salaries are doubled—yes, doubled. Imagine the prestige and applicants that would bring to the profession. Highly motivated college graduates would more frequently ponder: “Internet start-up, research medicine, or my hometown high school?” Schools with chronic teacher shortages would see many more qualified applicants and dedicated teachers would not be compelled to leave the classroom in order to support their family.
That’s why the Teacher Salary Project launched the Governors’ Challenge, asking governors to take action to make a long-term investment in their students’ futures, in the form of truly sustainable teachers’ salaries. With a million current teachers retiring in the next six years, we have is a unique opportunity to transform the profession and attract a new generation of top-notch educators. Governors have the power to spark real change in a way that our severely divided federal government does not.
Finding additional funding is never easy, of course, but districts and schools across the nation are having success with many different models. Helena, Montana, passed an early retirement plan. Denver passed a $25 million bond. There’s a different solution for each state or district. Where there is a will, there is a way and it’s time for the top leaders in our 50 states to step up. Some are starting to do just that.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is proposing to raise minimum pay in Iowa from $28,000 to $35,000. Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina wants to increase all starting salaries to $40,000, from less than $30,000 in some areas. Recently, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia awarded all teachers a two percent raise with no strings attached, calling the teachers the “backbone of everything that makes our gardens grow.” Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee claims he’s going to have the fastest-rising salaries in the nation on the day he leaves office in 2015. Additionally, Governors Scott (FL), Martinez (NM), Patrick (MA), McCrory (NC), Bentley (AL), Abercrombie (HI) and Cuomo (NY) are seeking or have already found ways to raise teacher pay, but in some cases, in small amounts and for select groups.
Let’s not let these governors be the only ones trying to improve salaries for teachers and let’s not allow any governor to make minuscule or divisive changes. Join our grassroots movement by reaching out to your governor to ask him or her about their plans to boost pay to professional levels. Keep track of how your governor is faring on our interactive map. Let’s reward governors who do the right thing with our future votes and gratitude, and let’s say farewell to those who won’t.