There’s a piece in Time magazine about how teachers are in a pay crisis. Most of the teachers in the article say they can’t make ends meet with their teaching job.

So, why don’t teachers do what all the other people in this country do when we can’t make ends meet in our job? We get a new job. How many of us had to stop being a writer or yoga trainer or ceramics teacher so that we could support ourselves? Why does everyone else have to quit a job that doesn’t pay well but teachers don’t?

Some teachers say they are working for near-poverty-level wages because they want to change the system. But of course you cannot change the system as one teacher.

You could save one kid, maybe three kids, a year. But if you are going to work for a poverty-level hourly wage, why not use your time more carefully? Get a job that pays you a living wage. Then, on the side, pick three poor kids and follow them for fifteen years. Make sure they go to college. It’s a lot of work, but to be fair, changing the world is a lot of work, and most of us can only handle making a living wage.

There is no way for one teacher to change anything because the teacher’s union lobby donates more money to politicians than either the gun lobby or the sugar lobby. If the NRA is supporting vigilantes and the beef industry is the mob, then the teacher’s union is a cartel, making sure teachers receive exclusive perks like never getting fired and vacations all summer.

Those teachers who are supposedly staying in the profession to change the world even though they can’t live on their salary could change the world from a huge range of other, higher impact, higher paying professions. But the teachers don’t want to work summers. And they don’t want to have to worry about getting fired and job hunting and funding their own retirement.

So, the teachers’ salaries stay low because they have so many perks. And if the job was so bad then there would be a shortage of teachers, but there’s not – aside from the sciences. Also, here’s some number-crunching from the libertarians at Reason Magazine to show that most teachers make good money.

One of the biggest problems with public school is that it doesn’t matter where your kids go to school. If the parents are rich, the kids will do well in school. If the parents are poor, the kids will not do well in school. You can move a poor family to a rich school and nothing changes. Vice versa is true as well.

So, it doesn’t matter what teacher you have. For any subject. Because we don’t have class mobility in this country. And if you won’t fall down in rank and you won’t rise in rank, what is the job of the teacher? You can’t teach a kid to love to learn. All humans love to learn – we are one of the most, if not the most, curious species ever.

We should have a national conversation about what we want from teachers since we’re definitely not getting what we want right now. But we can’t have any sort of real conversation about school because the teacher’s union pays politicians to do what the teachers want them to do. And the teachers who stay and complain about pay are not competent enough to find a rewarding job that pays them what they think they’re worth. So how will they teach kids to do that?

The only thing our kids are learning from these teachers is that school is a good place to hide out if you are too scared to job hunt, and democracy is good only if the teachers can control it.

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20 replies
  1. Leann
    Leann says:

    You are very misinformed
    My parents came here with nothing.
    Why don’t you map poor or lower class nuclear families vis a viz single parent ones. Ignore the data but truth is truth. Queens is loaded with people who came with nothing opened businesses work like dogs push their kids to the Max. Because they’re overwhelmingly Asian we resent it. I ADMIRE IT

    In one nyc district I know pay is upwards of $175k including the benefits. The superintendent of my district made the top three in Long Island for pay. That’s a tough job. Not all teachers have a tough gig.

    Some teachers (not in overwhelmingly urban democratic strongholds) are woefully underpaid. So are many private school teachers.

    Lastly the pension system is vile!!! It screws anyone who leaves works part time or starts late. Like social security you’re not paying for you and your benefits may get cut.

    Teachers unions shouldn’t exist. Because it’s a merit based job. I support some protection for Speech but they are indoctrinating and terrorizing students with Pc crap victimology and hatred of dissent. And popular books of poor literary value. I also loathe the minimal emphasis on fiction and art.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      In think the data on immigrant mobility (if I get it right that your parents were from somewhere other than the US) is not the same as for “regular” Americans. Not sure if Penelope has written about this, but I’ve seen it somewhere.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Yes, agree. Immigrants aren’t part of the data.

        Warning stereotypes coming: I think Asians in general have a separate problem. The idea of working very hard long hours is generally blue collar in the US. (I’m not saying this is right or wrong, it just is what *is*) So Asians quickly work their way to middle class, but they find themselves with a blue-collar mentality surrounded by people with a white-collar mentality of work smart rather than hard.

        You certainly could argue that Asians work hard and smart. You could argue a million things. But I hear anger in your comment, and I think the cause of the anger is the perception that the Asian work ethic resembles a blue-collar work ethic.

        I didn’t make this up. I read a lot about the Asian experience in the US because I have the opposite problem in the music world: all the kids are Asian and the families are divided by home country (even if they are generations removed from immigrants) and there is no place for non-Asians.


  2. Erin
    Erin says:

    This is a really interesting post, Penelope. Thank you. I’m admittedly somewhat ignorant to certain pieces as I live in Canada and my understanding has always been that Canadian teachers are more highly paid than American teachers. Some quick internet research and conversion of the difference in dollar value between our countries seems to confirm this so the issue is even greater here (and with no shortage of strikes and union conversation). However, even factoring that difference in, the teacher in the “Time” article is bringing in more money ( just In her teaching salary) than my family is as I balanced homeschooling 4 children over the past 16 years with paid work, which is now full-time contract work in social work. We save for our own retirement and dental. We need to be resourceful but we don’t feel hard done by and feel we have an abundant life in many ways. AND, I have made a lifestyle choice and take responsibility for that. I often notice a strange sense of entitlement and honour afforded teachers that aren’t to other professions. Certainly, it is difficult work with an honourable goal and we want people paid fairly for the good of society but many other people are doing difficult work with honourable goals ( with much less job security). Generally, we have access to data of what that job will pay when we choose that path, so yes, maybe a change in profession is in order if you aren’t able to make ends meet with that amount of money and benefits.

  3. Alissa O.
    Alissa O. says:

    It sounds like teachers have the same options as the rest of us when it comes to our careers:
    1) Do the same job in the same place with 0-3% cost of living salary adjustment per year. Stay for the perks, not the money. There are many people in this world who stay in their jobs to provide health, insurance, or retirement benefits for themselves and their families.
    2) Get a job at a different company. For teachers, this means teaching in a school district with rich(er) families that offers better pay or at least better working conditions. Obviously it’s easier to teach in a place where the school district has more resources and community and parental support. Less effort, same or higher salary.
    3) Specialize in high-demand areas. Teachers should switch to math, science, and/or computer subjects to have more opportunities.
    4) Move up to management. Become a superintendent or principal or educational administrator. More effort, higher pay.
    5) Switch professions entirely. If teachers are supposed to teach others, certainly they can teach themselves a new skill that is marketable and commands higher pay.

    I’m guessing that teaching does not attract many people who are interested in pursuing options other than 1 or 2. All of the teachers I know started off in poor schools to gain experience, then moved to richer schools. I think this is what upward mobility looks like for most teachers.

  4. sarah
    sarah says:

    Here, the teachers went on strike for the first two weeks of school. In the end, a teacher now starts at $75,000 a year, and caps at $101,000. The administration also makes $100,000 a year. The school district is now short 8 million for next year, which means my taxes will go up, from the $600 I already pay a month. They said they are going to cut the anti bully, and sucide programs to help pay for it. Before these programs there were on average 4 sucides per year. There have been zero since the programs. Apparently, you can put a price tag on a child’s life. The school board makes from $100,000 starting to $400,000. The whole thing floors me.

    • sarah
      sarah says:

      Also, the school board took the teachers to court and the court made them return to work siteing it is unlawful for a public employee to strike.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Egregious problems like this fascinate me. So parents know the kids are being taught by people who have few special qualifications. How low quality would school have to get before parents said forget it, we’re not doing this. Of course some parents do it now, but relatively few.

      People hate disruption to what they know. I thought about that when so many people said they’d go to Canada if Trump were elected. But aside from immigrants who Trump thinks he can illegally imprison, people didn’t leave.

      Even in Nazi Getmany, Jews didn’t want to leave. They wanted so so much for things to just get better.

      Our ability to wish for that is amazing. And I see if starkly in schools.


      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        “How low quality would school have to get before parents said forget it, we’re not doing this. Of course some parents do it now, but relatively few.”

        The threshold for removal by a parent will depend largely on their other options. Most parents can’t homeschool their children, either because they are single parents who work (about 1/4 of kids) or two parents who both work (about 50% of kids).

        In my city, the public schools are so infamously bad that about 1/4 of kids go to private or parochial school. But the single biggest matter I see giving parents anxiety is not the quality of the schools but the availability of extended care after school. I’ve seen parents turn down assignments at well-regarded schools just because an after-school slot wasn’t available. “Forget it, we’re not doing it” would have to start with the situation that required the parents to have someone else care for their kids 10 hours a day.

  5. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    In my state record numbers of emergency teacher certifications have been issued because there are not enough teachers because the state pays so low that they ARE leaving for higher paying states or other professions. That means class sizes swell and the students may be “taught” by someone who doesn’t really have all the qualifications needed. This isn’t just in the poorer districts, it’s been a state wide issue. There was a big walkout back in April, but the legislature keeps slashing at all levels of education in this state from kindergarten up to the universities.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I guess whether there is a teacher pay crisis is relative to one’s values. How much do we think teachers should be paid, relative to things like median income, living wage, and how much other college graduates make?

    On average, the average starting salary for a teacher is about 20 thousand below state median income (the more prosperous the state, the farther below it is). There is no state in the country where a teacher’s pay starts above median household income. In 36 states, it’s below 40K.

    MIT calculates a living wage for each state, and in no state does the average starting teacher salary exceed the living wage; the average shortfall is 12.5K.

    The average starting salary for the class of 2018 college graduates is $50,390, more than 12K higher than the average starting teacher salary. I actually got paid more on graduate stipend than starting teachers do (figuring for inflation). Is it consistent with our values that teaching should be one of the worst jobs a college graduate can get?

    I think there are terrible problems with the way schools are imagined, organized, and run in this country, but I don’t think excess of teacher pay is one of the problems.

    • sarah
      sarah says:

      Ome of the links (the time one, I think) states a teacher in the state of Kentucky gets paid $56,000 and the states medium is $46,000.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        It can both be true that _a_teacher_ in Kentucky makes 56K and that the starting salary for teachers in Kentucky is 36.5K. It would be silly to expect that a teacher with extra credentials and years of experience should make the same as an entry-level teacher.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I was unschooling my kids until we moved to MN, and we moved to a top school district, probably the highest ranked one…

    The cost of living here relative to what the teachers salary is seems to make it a good set up. I feel like my kids are at private school with everything offered…but without the huge price tag.

    One of the executives wives from my husband’s work was the choir teacher at my oldest’s middle school forever. But then she got offered a higher salary with less hours at the district next to ours so she left. Smart career move, I suppose.

    My issue with teachers, the good ones, is that they all leave once they get pregnant and have their kids. Which of course they should be with their kids, but I fell in love with them and miss them!!

  8. Minami
    Minami says:

    I think what you’ve said before about public school’s only useful function is free babysitting for impoverished families is true. This is the demographic of kids I work with, so I think a lot about what public schools need to be for those kids. They are also often the only place those kids get to eat on a given day, and sometimes the only safe environment they have, which is also why these schools usually have free summer school, all of which are reasons why public schools do serve a critical role in low-income communities. How well they actually fulfill that role is another discussion entirely.

    (Also, you are right that having well-off parents is the most important factor in school success, not the school itself: I knew an upper-middle-class girl from Kentucky who went to a mediocre local public school and got into Harvard. Because she went to a crappy school district in Nowheresville, Kentucky. And she was able to excel in that school versus her classmates, because her parents were well-off and provided application-impressive extracurriculars.)

    If public schools are daycare for really poor kids, then what would make them better at BEING that? For one, I think they should focus a lot more on soft skills and basic life skills. There also needs to be trauma therapy, emotional support, mental health services, etc. The lack of all these things is a big part of why big educational philanthropic efforts like the Gates Foundation’s have sucked at positively impacting public education (not that they have figured this out yet):

    When public school teachers are good at what they do, it’s not necessarily because they’re good at crafting and executing on curricula. It’s because they will do basically what good homeschooling does: provide emotional support and stability, and support children in finding and pursuing their passions – even when it goes outside the scope of the specific subject they’re assigned to teach.

    Whenever someone who grew up poor and climbed out of the cycle of poverty says “This teacher changed my life,” that is what that teacher did.

  9. Emily Williamson
    Emily Williamson says:

    It seems like a departure from your last few years of posts that you didn’t attribute anything about the teacher’s behavior, attitudes, and career paths to typical teacher personality type(s).

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The piece in was interesting and covered a lot of ground. In the process, it didn’t explore any of the problems teachers and schools are experiencing to any depth. Also, it didn’t have any links while at the same time citing data throughout.
    This sentence in the first paragraph of the Time article – “This financial juggling is now a part of her everyday life—something she never expected almost two decades ago when she earned a master’s degree in secondary education and became a high school history teacher.” – made me think about the education requirements states impose upon its educators. New York State requires a master’s degree and continuing education certification afterward. The certified teacher has to pay off their own education loans. I am reminded of an informal Q & A session at Colgate University many years ago I attended where Sir Richard Branson answered questions from the audience. One of the questions (I think it was from a student) was (paraphrased) – did he have any interest or plans to fund a scholarship to the school? It was entrepreneur weekend and that was why he was there and the focus of the session. Also, I had read Richard Branson struggled in school and dropped out at age 16. So I just about ‘died’ and gasped when I heard it. What seemed like an eternity while I can only imagine took everything for him to compose himself, he said he may consider funding a one year program of some kind. So here’s my point, why is so much post-secondary formal education required to be a teacher? Why shouldn’t a four or even two-year degree be the requirement with continuing education after that every few years, if necessary, funded by the school district?

  11. HLF, PhD German Lit., MA Ed.
    HLF, PhD German Lit., MA Ed. says:

    “…making sure teachers receive exclusive perks like never getting fired and vacations all summer.”
    You are sorely misinformed. Public school districts have legal processes for firing tenured teachers, complete with steps that must be followed, just as in any other business. In my up-close observation, the big problem with getting rid of the bad teachers is the administrators who do not want to deal with the hassle. For example, I had a colleague who was literally losing her mind with alcohol abuse. My classroom was next to hers, so I was able to witness her antics day-in and day-out for years. And for years, I reported the illegal aspects of her behavior to our principal, through the proper channels. The principal did nothing, for years. But finally, *he* got fired, in the way that principal gets fired: he was declared Principal of the Year so that some other district lured him away. Then that district dumped him. But I digress. The new principal arrived in possession of a functioning spine, and the crazy drunk teacher was escorted off-campus, forever, within a month. She died a year later.

    Also, is it a “vacation” when one is not getting paid? We get paid for 10 months of the year, and either we stash a little away every month so that we can spend the break with our children, who are also on break, or we do our other job. Or both, depending on what our partners do. If we have one.

  12. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Your proposal for teachers to “adopt” 3 children and follow them closely for 15 years as an alternative way to make a real difference is compelling. I’m interested in why you picked “3” children and “15” years. Maybe it was just random, but those do seem like good estimates to me of what it takes to influence a person in the long-term. Most people don’t have the bandwidth to invest heavily in more than 3 people over that long of a duration. Anyway, what are your thoughts?

  13. Jen
    Jen says:

    I’m curious where your perspective comes from on this– I see that you did not interview any teachers directly, work as an educator yourself, or observe in any schools. It is easy to lob criticisms from up in the stands. The view is a little different from the arena floor. I invite you to come down here sometime, get a closer look, connect with the human beings doing the work. You might be surprised.

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