Why is Discussing Teacher Pay Important?



The idea of discussing teacher pay has long been largely ignored. At the root, it seems that as a society we underpay professions that help other humans and overpay those who largely invest in things. To pay teachers more would be to admit that we value humans more than we do success, and in the US, that is typically not the case. By paying teachers more we would need to admit that we have been mistreating them thus far, and we don't want to do that either. And at the end of the day, teachers get into teaching as a passion area, and we know that they will do it for less because it's a "calling". When I call out teacher pay as one of the main issues of the collapse of the education system due to teacher attrition right now, people will always say, "But it's not only the pay." That's right, it's not only the pay, but the salary that teachers make isn't only about money. There are so many more pieces that are tied to income than just how much you make.


How Society Ranks Professions

When we look at other countries and notice how their teachers are paid in comparison to ours, we will also notice how their society, in general, tends to view the teaching profession - as worthwhile and valuable. Society views professions as more prestigious the more you are paid, When you're viewed as more prestigious, you are seen as more professional and more professional means that you're trusted to do your job. Right now, in many communities, the role of the teacher and their expertise is being questioned at every turn. This is not only frustrating for teachers to be seen as a "less than" profession when they're trying so hard, but the lack of trust when they work so hard can lead to demoralization.


An Increase in Burnout

When I first began teaching I made $23K. I had student loans that doubled that. And while one might think that was soooooo long ago, I was a part of a hiring committee just a few years ago where we offered a teacher a position who had experience a contract of $32K. When I began teaching I had four kids. In order to make more money, I needed to go back to school to get a Master's degree. Which decreased the time I had with my children while I worked full-time, and increased my student loans. I had to work summer school and I tried selling every makeup/jewelry/pottery side gig on the planet. There is a difference between being paid enough to be able to work summer school for "extra money" or because you want to and doing it because you have to in order to pay your bills. Or working any other second or third job like many teachers do, for that matter. If you are forced to take on extra duties or extra jobs just to make ends meet, it takes away from the capacity to do your job the best you can no matter how dedicated you are.


The Emotional Toll

In my second year of teaching, I was at school and noticed that my checking account was going to overdraw. I had forgotten about a check I had written to pay a bill and it was going to clear. We weren't getting a paycheck for a week and we had no money in the checking account. I cried at lunch. There was nothing to do about it and I didn't even know how I was going to put gas in my car to get to work. I had a meeting with my principal after school about something unrelated and yet started crying there as well. When I told her what was happening, she - I kid you not - got her checkbook out and wrote me a $100 check. She told me that she had gone through something similar as a teacher and that I could pay her back when I got paid. It still makes me tear up when I think about it. Even so, after I deposited the check to cover the other check, I had $8 for the week to feed our family of six, which bought us bread and peanut butter. While that particular time sticks out, I distinctly remember the anxiety and emotional toll that it repeatedly took on me when I wasn't able to do or afford things for my own children because I had chosen a job that gets paid less because I wanted to be a part of a profession that has the potential to change the world. That emotional toll also can cause both demoralization and burnout.


Of course, there are teachers who make more money than this, right? Inevitably, someone outside the profession will say, "I know a teacher who makes $80k!" Yes, good for them. They have probably taught in the same district for 20 years and still have student loans from their Master's degrees. When you make enough money to have an income that gives you the bandwidth to live a comfortable life without sacrifice for what you do, there is a very different spin on the way you look at income. When that's the case, income feels less important because it doesn't impact your emotional health as often as it does when every dollar counts. So, when we speak about teacher pay, it really is much more than how much income they make. When we speak about teacher burnout and attrition it isn't based solely on pay. However, to think that they aren't related would be simplifying what is happening to the entire profession right now. Are teachers leaving because of pay? Maybe not directly. But, they may be leaving because their "filled cup" is no longer enough to make up for the emotional toll that the jobs takes - and pay can contribute to that.

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