Just Like Everyone Else
Reading, Writing, and Landscaping
Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools|
- Peter F Drucker
by Dave Eggers
Mowing lawns, scrubbing bathrooms, selling stereos: How teachers make ends meet
As a nation, we're confused about how we see teachers. Most polls show that respect for the profession has risen in recent years, yet we have certain quietly entrenched ideas - that teaching is easy, that teachers get out at 3pm every day - and these notions, all ludicrous, allow us to accept the injustice in teachers' dismally low salaries. We love teachers, we think they're saints, but most of us consider unavoidable the fact that they are underpaid and often have to work two or three extra jobs to maintain a middle-class existence.
The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary - not the starting salary - is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000.
The first step to creating an education system full of the best teachers we can find is to pay them in line with their importance to their communities. We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher's. But it seems difficult for everyone, from parents to politicians, to shake free of a tradition in which teaching was seen as something of a volunteer project for women whose husbands brought home the real money. Today's teachers need to, but very often can't, support a family on their salaries. They find it difficult or impossible to buy homes, to save money, to live comfortably, and, in wealthier areas, to live in or near the towns where they teach.
I vividly remember, while growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the '70s, knowing that my 6th-grade math teacher was also - even during the school year - a licensed and active travel agent, and I recall seeing a number of my high-school teachers, all with master's degrees or PhD's, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it's a disgrace. When teachers are forced to tend the yards of students' homes, to clean houses, or to sell stereos on nights and weekends, the quality of education is diminished, the profession is disrespected, and we parody the notion that we hold our schools and teachers in the highest regard. Teachers with 2 and 3 jobs are tired, their families are frustrated, and the students they teach, who want to - and should - consider their instructors exalted figures, learn instead to think of teaching as a part-time gig, the day job for the guy who sells Game Boys at Circuit City.
Erik Benner, 32
I've been teaching history for 8 years now and the whole time I've been working nights and weekends at the local Circuit City. It pays decently. We've got 3-year-old twins and an 11-year-old, and without the second job, it would be extremely difficult. The irony is that the extra job takes me away from my kids on the weekends. I coach, too, and football season is pure chaos. It's Texas. Football's big. It's a 12-hour day if there're no games. And if there're no games, then I could go get 4½ or 5 hours at the store.
I have a buddy who started at Circuit City the same time as I did. He's a store manager now. He's making the same as I am working two jobs. By me working my second job, I'm making more money than [a teacher] with a masters and 20+ years of experience, which is sad.
It bothers my wife more than it bothers me. She'd like me to have weekends off. She doesn't like having to go to church by herself.
Rachel Cross, 30
I'm a single mom, and I do everything at school I can do, as far as tutoring and summer school. But it got so bad that for almost a year, I cleaned houses. I'd just take my son with me and go clean houses. It's not that I think I'm too good for that. It didn't bother me to sweep, and it didn't bother me to mop. But every time I would scrub a toilet, I would think, "I went to school for 4 years and did very well, and I'm doing this."
I was doing it 2 to 3 times a week at night and on Saturdays, probably 4 to 5 hours, and making about $30 to $40 - about $100 a week total. I would get off work and go clean houses and then get home at 10. And it's like, you're on your knees in front of this toilet, and you're almost praying, praying that it'll get better, that you won't have to do this forever. But at the same time, you've got to be thankful, because this'll be 30 extra dollars. It's a tank of gas, or it may be part of your co-pay if your child gets sick.
There's always something; that's the nature of having a child. One afternoon, he was riding home with my mother. And she gave him a couple of dollars because we were going to go to the movies or something, and he said, "I'm going to give this to my mommy, because even though she doesn't tell me, I know she doesn't have a lot of money." That just broke my heart. He was probably 4 at the time.
Dan Beutner, 38
My first teaching contract was in 1988; I got paid $19,500. I thought I could do that, I could make it work. (I'm not materialistic.) As time went on, I got married and had two kids. I realised bills add up. We had problems because my wife was a teacher, too. So I started taking on part-time jobs. I landscaped during the summer for a parent who owned a landscape company. I made $5 an hour pushing a lawn mower. They had contracts with local strip malls.
The next school year, I started doing it on my own, just cutting lawns. Every weekend for 10 years, I went out and cut grass and installed sprinklers and that kind of thing. I reached a point where I realised I could make more money as a landscaper than as a teacher. But I didn't want to do that - I wanted to teach.
When I cut lawns, kids would come out and say, "Mr Beutner's here!" It was an exciting thing. And I just said, "Hey, how's it going?" and figured I'm showing them a good work ethic. At one point, I worked 3 jobs. I was a teacher, I had my own landscaping company, and I delivered newspapers. I would get up at 3am and drive to the high school where the newspaper truck would be. If the truck was late, I would sit in the parking lot and grade papers while I waited.
Steve Herraiz, 40
I work 16 hours a week at a bar. I spend about 50 hours a week teaching. During summer, sometimes I travel a bit for vacation, but I can't really afford to go too far because I still need that second income from the bar. What's really tragic is that when I first started teaching, I was making the same amount of money bartending 2 days a week as teaching 5 days a week.
I spent $3,900 of my own money last year on my classroom and it was not for anything extravagant. It was for items like paper clips, art supplies and paint - things you would assume the district should provide but they don't. I was active in union work a couple of years ago, but I didn't feel we were being heard. There are so many obstacles to being a good teacher that I just said, "What can I control myself?" I can have a second job and not have to worry about supplies.
The main thing about having two jobs is that it gives me the extra money I need to be an effective teacher. In other words, I can buy snacks for my kids. For the last 8 years, I've been buying the food that gets them through the morning because the school doesn't provide any sort of nutritious snack. Kindergartners need to eat every few hours to get through the day.
Source: motherjones.com May/June 2004 illustrations by Lloyd Miller, interviews by Ninive Calegari and Daniel Moulthrop © 2004 The Foundation for National Progress
I see the author of this article as a bit of a whiner. So he thinks "students ... should - consider their instructors exalted figures..."? My own children were home-schooled because I didn't view teachers in that way. These teachers come across as folks with rather limited ability and prospects who saw teaching as their ticket to to the upper middle class and were a little bitter it didn't work out that way. If you're interested, you can read the original article - I edited the teachers for clarity. (I'd grade them B-.)
Trust me - no one ever thinks they get quite the salary or the respect they deserve. Prospective teachers can (and should) check average salaries before settling on a career. If they still feel it is worthwhile to teach - well, that eagerness may be one reason why market forces keep teachers' salaries in check. And teachers unions may be one reason why perks are so good...
It's not that the above article is wrong, exactly, but it is dishonest. Very.
I'm doing an Engineering Tech degree - it's a nice course of study, and certainly no picnic, and it will qualify me easily as an electronics tech - which happens to have a mean average salary as of 1 October 2003 of... $26,855. Of course, I've got an excellent GPA, I'm taking a lot of business and management courses, and don't plan on getting a job as mere tech - but there it is.
Engineering Science is a "real" engineering degree, and it takes a lot more abstract courses - a couple years of calc courses, a year of chemistry and physics, et cetera, and then usually you'll need to pass a VERY tough professional exam to get your engineering license. After that, you're qualified to build bridges, or design chemical production lines, or whatever. It's tough - the courses required are HARD. A Mechanical Engineer has an average mean salary of $53,615. An Electrical Engineer averages $1k higher, and a Chemical Engineer (there's a shortage) about $10k higher.
Those are average salaries for engineers - there's a shortage, and the course of study is rigourous. Teachers only get $46k? And, "ludicrous" notions of teachers workloads or not, they damn well DO get flexible hours and other perks.
Further, mentioning the average salaries of places with extremely low cost of living is absurd unless you compare it to averages for other jobs in the same area. And hmm, are teachers really so underpaid? Let's check.
Google tells me the median salary for elementary school teachers in Topeka is $43k, and that they get another $17k of benefits - time off, pensions, healthcare - bringing their median up to $60k. Not bad! And, hmm, also in Topeka an Aerospace Engineer (otherwise known as a rocket scientist, albeit a junior one) with a bachelors and a few years of experience has a median salary of $52k, and can expect another $20k of benefits, for a total of $72k.
Mentioning the longshoreman on the West coast is probably the most dishonest bit yet, of course, because they're highly unionised, and have managed to extort ungodly wages - nobody seriously claims they're worth that - they've just got the ports over a barrel, and are squeezing for all they're worth. In so doing, they are singlehandedly destroying their profession, but it's lucrative NOW...
Even the pile-driver bit sounds...odd. A Grader, Bulldozer, and Scraper Operaotor has a median salary of $34k, benefits bring it up to $50k or so. Are pile-driver operators more highly qualified?
The sob stories from the teachers are touching, I suppose, but they also drive home the point - people want to be teachers.
Now, a criticism here might be that many teachers do have higher level qualifications - I can't find data on this, but the article implies many do, and I've been comparing to people with bachelors or less. I can find a lot of articles about the crisis states are having finding enough qualified teachers - and the qualification levels required are truly pitiful. Regardless, perhaps teachers should be compared to professions with graduate degrees (I find this...doubtful) but maybe. In that case, there is indeed a salary gap - lawyers, doctors, engineers with graduate qualifications, et cetera, have median salaries in the $70k - $90k range. Of course, there are other factors.
Regardless of how many hours teachers ACTUALLY work, contracts typically expect teachers to work 6½ hours per day (in NYC, it's 6 hours and 20 minutes, COUNTING a 50 minute lunch where, by contract, they have no duties), 5 days a week, and only during the school year, and nothing else. This works out to a total of 180 - 190 days per year, versus 240 days per year for most professions. Teachers argue that to do a proper job, they have to work outside of that time at home - but the obvious response is that many doctors or lawyers would give up a significant chunk of salary to be able to do the same. This is especially true for mothers, who might potentially sacrifice a lot of salary to be able to be home when their child gets home from school. Further, many highly-paid professionals work long hours, AND bring work home - which is why studies show that in total, at their workplace and at home, teachers still work fewer hours than many professions.
Teachers report 38 hours a week of on-site work, rising to 40 when you count after school activities such as coaching. Not bad at all compared to other professions, where 50-hour weeks are common. It's difficult to work out how much work is done at home, but most people would find it odd if it was more than a lawyer, say.
Further, out of that 180-day work year, teachers are absent 9.4 days, on average. (NYC hit 11.3 days per teacher recently). By the Bureau of Labour Statistics figures, managers and professionals average 1.7% absenteeism, or about one-third as much.
The Bureau of Labour Statistics calculates that only engineers, architects, and surveyors (if in private practice) and attorneys earn more on an hourly basis - and as pointed out above, they don't do too badly on a yearly basis. Of course, many teachers do work extra jobs, but I think this is largely explained by the fact that unlike other professions, teachers are ABLE to work extra jobs, and many will continue to do so as long as their workload allows it, regardless of salary.
And we haven't yet covered fringe benefits. Public school teachers tend to have extremely generous pensions. In Missouri, teachers who begin at age 22 can retire at 55 with 84% of their final salary, adjusted for inflation annually (an important perk all on its own and rare in the private sector), and can take another job without impacting pension pay. Nationally, the average age on retirement for teachers is 59 - for all professions, it averages 64. Health insurance for teachers is universal (99% coverage), and 51% are fully paid for by the employer, versus an average of 20% in private sector professionals. Only 10% of private firms pay the full premiums for family policies, 29% of public school systems do.
And so on...
A society that puts equality...ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.
- Milton Friedman
I was a high-school English teacher for 3 years, and recently ran screaming back to the arms of the private sector. I personally had no bad experiences with the NEA, but I'll say this: thinking that the NEA is the only thing wrong with American education is like thinking Bin Laden is the only thing wrong with Islamic extremism. Teachers are expected to "open kids' minds" and "teach them to think for themselves," yet at the same time we don't dare say or do anything that might possibly offend the parents. Kids with criminal records have a "right" to an education, but teachers don't have the right to know that their students are dangerous. Special-ed kids cannot be disciplined at all. Failures cannot be held accountable for their failure, because that might damage the kids' self-esteem.
True anecdote, before I make my dinner: I taught Merchant of Venice to seniors one year; in it there's a line where one character is insulting another, by saying something along the lines of "He damns the ears of all who hear him, by calling him 'fool.'" One of the kids asked me what that meant, so I explained that one of the lesser-known verses of the Book of Matthew has Jesus saying that anyone who calls another a fool will be damned. (I recited chapter and verse, though I can't remember it now.) I went on to talk about the very funny use Voltaire made of that in his essay "The Jesuit Berthier" (an angel tells a priest to stop giving his stupid, boring sermons, because instead of winning souls for God he's endangering the souls of all who hear him, because they all call him a fool), and explained also that this is why cartoony villians in movies developed the habit of using "Fool!" as their default insult; for people familiar with the Bible, the fact that the villain always says "Fool!" is just one more proof that this is an evil, evil dude.
"So anyway," I said to the class, "back in Shakespeare's day, when people were far more familiar with the Bible than they are now, instead of insulting someone by saying 'You are a fool,' you'd say 'You are a - well, I can't SAY what you are because then I'd go to hell.' That's what he's doing in the play."
Next day I get called into the principal's office; some parents were furious that I had told their kids that Jesus said anyone who says 'fool,' will go to Hell.
"But he did," I pointed out.
"It doesn't matter, Jennifer. You can't insult kids' religions."
"Well, the kid asked me what that line from the play meant! What was I supposed to do?"
"Just tell him you don't know."
Posted by: Jennifer on June 3, 2004 06:24 PM
(Matthew 5:22) - "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."
Posted by: Jennifer on June 3, 2004 06:26 PM
Moral outrage as a disguise for manipulating the intersection of religious history with other historical knowledge - whether one agrees with certain beliefs or not - is an attempt to conveniently suppress the need for intelligent debate.
Posted by: Joe Middelkoop on June 4, 2004 11:32 PM
My brother, a public school history teacher in California, had a tangentially similar experience back when he was scrambling around for a tenured slot. At one post 6 or 7 years ago, he was asked in class about how the Germans could have possibly supported Adolf Hitler. He explained, best as he could, about the Versailles Treaty, hyperinflation, the wounded German national psyche, how the Nazi twerp made some people feel better, how Germans are weird; the usual stuff (I'm, uh, paraphrasing from memory; at any rate, he spoke of the plausible reasons why the Little Dictator originally became popular). A kid in his class, who was Jewish, told her mom that night that the history teacher was Defending Hitler. Mom called the principal. Principal called my bro into the office for a dressing-down or three. At the end of the year, he was not asked to return; he remains convinced that this was the biggest single reason.
Which is all ironic, because as a child he forced me to watch approximately every WW2 movie ever made, and I'm pretty sure we always rooted for the good guys.
Posted by: Matt Welch on June 4, 2004 05:38 PM
In addition to my day job I teach part time in the evening at a small private college. We teach in short, compressed terms, so that students take a couple of intensive classes every term rather than 4 classes over a longer term.
A student missed my midterm. I said on the first day of class that I would fail anybody who misses the midterm. He showed up late to the next class with a very lame excuse for missing the midterm and no documentation. (Isn't it funny how sick grandparents and car accidents never happen during spring break, but inevitably happen on the day of a major test?) I told him that if he had contacted me right away about his alleged situation I could have made some sort of arrangement, but I won't bend over backwards for somebody who comes to me after the fact with no documentation. I told him that I'm within my rights to not accept late work, and to fail people who don't do all of the work on time.
So then I get an email from one of his parents, a very wealthy and powerful person. (I didn't know this when I kicked him out of my class, but I googled the parent's name, found a CV, and my eyes grew wide.) And this parent spoke to me in legalese and demanded to know the policy which authorises me to fail him.
So I spoke to my supervisor and learned that, contrary to what I had understood, I can't flunk somebody for the entire class based on a missed midterm, I can only assign an F for the percentage of the grade that's based on the midterm according to the official syllabus (which I don't have the authority to write). Other instructors have tried to do this and been shot down by the administration, which is very fearful of lawyers. (I didn't know this previously, as I'm fairly new.)
Anyway, I know that technically I'm in the wrong since what I tried to do runs contrary to the official interpretation of school policies. (In all fairness to myself, the information that I had been given in faculty meetings suggested that I have quite a bit of latitude to maintain standards, and when I had previously failed students for similar reasons I hadn't gotten in any trouble.)
I still think it's ridiculous that an instructor needs an official permission slip to fail a student who doesn't take the midterm, especially when the course is so compressed and intense. But for fear of lawsuits it's been turned around so that students can only fail based on very specific criteria.
But I won't quit. I need the money and the letter of recommendation. I'll just have to wait until I'm a tenured professor somewhere. I used to think that tenure was a bad idea because it removed accountability. But seeing first-hand how students can threaten teachers with lawyers, now I think that tenure may be very necessary to protect faculty from students who don't want to be held to high standards.
I'm not the first faculty member to try this, apparently. The school I teach at is very career-oriented, rather than a liberal arts college, and other faculty have pointed out that if students in the real world miss even one assignment the client could fire them. So you'd think that the faculty would be quite justified in flunking any student who misses a major exam. Then again, maybe when these students get out into the real world they'll just hire lawyers and sue any client who refuses to pay for an incomplete job. You can sue for hot coffee nowadays, so why not sue a client who demands his money back over incomplete work?
Posted by: anon for obvious reasons on June 6, 2004 05:05 PM
I'll admit that I'm biased.
I have some sympathy with Jennifer, but if imparting knowledge to her students was her most important goal, it's one she isn't meeting in the private sector. Perhaps she could have mollified the principal and continued teaching? Oh, only if she was able to do it her way?
One wonders what anon thinks the purpose of teaching is. He seems to be in an authority contest with his students. If the student in question took the test the very next class and did well enough to show he knew the subject, wouldn't that be sufficient? (Okay, so penalise him a letter grade.) No? Still not enough? Oh, I see. He didn't follow the RULES!
(And how would this teacher know that "sick grandparents and car accidents never happen during spring break"? He doesn't sound like the sort of teacher that many students would confide their troubles to.)
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