Money Talks

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[Read Part Two: But You Get Summers Off]

[Read Part Three: Walking Out]

I don’t know how much what I’m about to say needs to be said. This blog is full of book reviews and liberal political ranting; the majority of my readers are people I know personally, which means they’re mostly teachers and liberals and readers (Oh my!), like me. I feel pretty confident that most people reading this already think that teachers should be paid more. But I want to take it one step further, because while most people seem to think that teachers should be paid more, somehow we’re not; so there does seem to be a need, here. My hope, therefore, is that people who don’t realize how vital this issue is will learn something that helps push them towards what I think is the right answer; maybe you all will even share this or some of the ideas with your own people, and then others might learn something or be pushed towards the right answer.

For myself, I need to do this. Because, you see, I teach in Arizona, and in two days, thousands of Arizona teachers are going to walk off the job and out of their schools in order to try to win the same argument I’m going to talk about here; and I won’t be walking out with them. That makes me feel terrible. So I need to do what I can to support them, and one of the things I can do is argue, and write, and then share this. So here goes.

Let’s talk first about what teachers make. I started teaching in 2000, in San Diego County in southern California; that year I made about $36,000 before taxes. I also got good health coverage, though I didn’t need it at the time, and about $4000 was contributed to a pension account in my name. However, as some of you know and the rest can imagine, San Diego County is quite an expensive place to live, and so that first year, I needed to take a second job over the summer to make ends meet: I went with the obvious one, and taught summer school. Six weeks of extra work, and I made $25 an hour, 7 hours a day. Not bad. That year I was able to purchase my very first car, a 2-year-old Chevy pick-up with 74,000 miles, and we found a decent 3-bedroom house to rent. (I should note: I am removing my wife from this almost entirely, because her income has been extremely inconsistent: some years she made a lot, some years not so much. She’s an artist. The point I’m trying to make is this: it shouldn’t matter. I’m a highly trained and capable professional. I should be able to pay for a lower-middle-class lifestyle for two people with no kids and no expensive habits. Don’t you think?) We were able to pay for most purchases, but when surprise bills came up, they went on credit cards. Luckily, not that many bills came up, and we didn’t purchase very many things. No large entertainment systems. No extra vehicles. We took one vacation, an overnight trip to Disneyland. We did buy pets, I’ll admit. The bunny cost us $20. The dog was the big ticket item: $150 for him.

We moved to Oregon in 2004, partly because we hadn’t been able to save anything substantial, despite the fact that I kept teaching summer school, and got a $1500 raise every year (Teachers generally have a salary schedule where we step up every year for some number of years, and then every couple of years, and then we top out after 15-20 steps. You can also get raises if you get more post-degree education, which shifts you up a column.), and we knew that we’d never be able to afford to buy a home in San Diego’s real estate market. When we moved, I was up to $42,000 a year pre-tax; my new position in St. Helens, Oregon paid about $35,000. Back to square one. I had to take out the retirement money because four years isn’t long enough to get vested into the California retirement system, so we rolled it over into an IRA. But there was a problem: the cost of living in Oregon wasn’t actually much less than it had been in California, and my monthly paychecks weren’t enough to cover our bills. I had to change from 12 monthly checks to 10, which meant I didn’t get paid over the summer. No problem: I would teach summer school.

They didn’t have summer school.

So we cashed out my retirement money, and that got us through the summer; about half of my total retirement savings from California was left. The next year I got a raise, but still not enough to go to 12 monthly checks (Please note: this is now my 6th year teaching, and I didn’t make enough to pay for two people with a very modest lifestyle, no kids, no expensive hobbies. When my lawnmower died, I bought a push mower.); fortunately, that year they ran a summer school, and I taught it. Allow me to point out: this was a second job. I know people make a lot of teachers getting the summers off, and we do – that’s one of the main reasons why I started teaching, because I wanted to use the summers to write my novels – but we work 50-60 hours a week during the school year. Especially the first few years, because everything is new and takes ten times as much planning (Especially when, like me, you get handed new never-before-taught classes and you have to make everything up from scratch.). You also don’t get to sleep, because everything makes you nervous or angry or both. Everything. I threw a book at a kid my first year because he was rolling around the classroom in my desk chair. (Don’t worry, I missed him.) The summer isn’t really vacation, it’s all the hours you lost over the school year, the only time you get to relax and do fun things, or spend time with family, or sleep. The average school year is 36-38 weeks long (My current school has a 40-week academic year with two extra weeks of professional development for teachers); even if we don’t count the work we usually do over summer on lesson plans and such, the hours are comparable: a regular office job is 50 weeks, 40 hours a week, which is 2000 hours a year; a teacher works around 53 hours a week, on average, for, let’s say, 38 weeks, which is 2014 hours per year. So having to teach summer school is exactly the same as having a second job right after your 40-hour-a-week job: you don’t get to take advantage of your hours off, you never really get to rest. It is not easy.

So I taught summer school that second year in Oregon, and it helped; but not enough, because we had bought our very first house, which saved money on rent and allowed us to start building equity, but it also meant we had new bills. So that we’re clear: we did not go crazy with this purchase; we bought the ugliest house in the best neighborhood, and in April of 2005, it cost us about $140,000; we didn’t have a down payment, but there was a special deal offered to teachers that covered 100% of new home mortgages. So that year we had to cash out the rest of my retirement money to make it through the summer. And I had no idea what we were going to do the third year.

The third year in Oregon, I found out that my district had been shortchanging me: they had calculated my column on the salary schedule as though my credits were quarter credits, when most of them were semester credits, which should have moved me up to the third column (Bachelor’s degree +45 graduate credits instead of +30, because I did two and a half years of graduate school after my BA. Teacher training, not a Master’s program, but it counts.). They gave me the difference in one large check: that and the new step I got that year meant we were able to cover the summer gap, with the summer school work. The following year, my fourth year teaching in Oregon, the step was just barely enough that we could shift to 12 paychecks: and for the first time, I could pay my way with just my teacher’s salary. Mostly. We still couldn’t handle a large money emergency, and we still didn’t have any appreciable savings. Two people. No kids. No expensive habits. Hadn’t taken a vacation since Disneyland. We had a second car at this point: my wife’s parents gave her their GMC Jimmy when they bought a new car for themselves.

Right about then (2007-2008), the economy collapsed. Even though we had bought the cheapest house we could, and done a lot of improvements ourselves, we went underwater on our mortgage. Teachers started getting RIFfed (Reduction In Force, the eduspeak version of layoffs), and our health insurance costs started going up, and our salaries got frozen, step raises delayed or canceled. Somewhere around there, right around when we finished paying it off, my Chevy got broken and we couldn’t afford to repair it, so it sat in our driveway for a year while I walked to work. (That was by choice. I could have taken my wife’s car, or had her drive me, but I liked the walk. The point is that I couldn’t afford to pay for a house and two cars. Eight, nine, ten years as a professional teacher. And Oregon teacher salaries are pretty good, taken as a whole.) So in 2010, I again took a second job, as a union negotiator for the contract talks we had with our district. That might have been the toughest job for the least compensation I’ve ever had; I got a one-time stipend of, I think, about $1400; in exchange, I stopped sleeping for the year and a half that I was the lead negotiator. Instead of sleep, I just hated everyone and everything. Especially myself.

Here’s the gist: by the time we moved away from Oregon, in 2014, I was earning $59,000 a year before taxes, though like everyone, our health care costs were going up every year. We sold our house in 2013 for a small profit, but only if you don’t count in the money we invested in it, or the time. We used much of that money to buy a new car – a two-year-old Kia Sportage with 25,000 miles – and a new mattress, and our first flat screen TV (Which we still have). And we moved to Arizona, where I took a job at a charter school in Tucson. That first year? My 14th as a teacher, who now had over 90 post-graduate credits, because I had to take more classes to renew my Oregon credential?

I made $36,000. Before taxes.

So now here I am, in my 18th year as a teacher. I am Highly Effective according to my last performance review, the top score you can earn. I have been one of the favorite teachers, if that matters (and since charter schools compete with public schools for students, and one of our selling points is to have students tell other students that they really like their __________ teacher, it does matter; I’ve had parents tell me the reason they came to or stayed with the school is because of the English department) every year; I was named Teacher of the Year in Oregon. This year I made about $45,000 before taxes. I only got it up that high because I teach AP (Extra work because there are more and longer essays), because I teach five different preps (Extra planning work to figure out what five different classes are going to do each day, and also tough to shift gears that many times during the day when I get four minutes in between classes), and because I teach more than a full schedule (I teach 29 periods per week instead of the usual 25) – basically, I’m teaching summer school during the year, now. And I can almost pay all of our bills. Almost. Still couldn’t handle a money emergency, nor save a lot. Won’t be buying another house any time soon. We are doing better because of my wife’s income. But shouldn’t I be able to pay for two people, no kids, no expensive habits? Isn’t that a reasonable expectation for a teacher’s salary? Especially a good teacher with almost twenty years of experience and two Master’s degrees worth of extra credits?

So here’s my question for the room. How much should a teacher make? I don’t mean a dollar figure, since that can reasonably be tied to cost of living depending on location; I mean, where should teachers fall on the scale? Are we middle class? Working class? Are we servants? Public sector workers? I’m sure you’ve seen the memes about teachers as babysitters (I have about 20 students at a time [Charter schools do have smaller class sizes, which is lovely] for seven hours a day; if parents pay babysitters $10 an hour or more, how much should I make? Sure, I’ll take $1400 a day.) or calculating all of the different tasks a teacher does during the day, or comparing teacher pay in the US to teacher pay in, say, Finland; but I’ve also seen people describing teachers as lazy and incompetent, as people who get summers off, as people who just hang out with kids all day, and therefore we are overpaid. Allow me to point out that part of the reason for low teacher pay is that teachers have always been willing to give up dollars in exchange for benefits: for good health coverage, for good retirement, for tenure, the system that makes it harder to get fired. (Not impossible: it is never impossible to get fired. Don’t believe anyone who says it is.) Allow me also to point out that, though it varies state by state, I currently have decent health coverage that is pretty expensive for me; no contribution to any retirement beyond social security; and no tenure. Those benefits are vanishing. And in exchange, we get – more work. And less pay.

You could argue that teachers know what they’re signing up for. You’d be sort of right, although – like most people, I would think – there were expectations I had that didn’t prove true, like the summers off and the tenure and such. But by now, I know what I’m signing up for. I could quit teaching, try to find something else; but I’d have to start at entry level. And also, I’m good at teaching: it seems like something I should stick with. And it seems like something I should be able to make a living doing, at least enough to pay for two people with no kids and no expensive habits. I could have turned down the job in Arizona, stayed in Oregon and made more. I could move away now and make more, especially if I moved to Massachusetts or New York, or back to California. But while that solves my problem, it doesn’t solve the whole problem: because there will still be more than a million students in Arizona, who need teachers. And if Arizona won’t pay those teachers enough, and the teachers all move away, then – what? What’s the plan? All the students follow the teachers to different states? They all get homeschooled, learn their math from Khan Academy?

I read an article this morning in the New York Times about how all public sector government jobs have been disappearing and losing pay; a couple of statements struck me. Both came from the same woman, Teresa Moore, a social worker in Oklahoma who investigates reports of abuse of both children and seniors. The first was this:

Ms. Moore’s friends and neighbors hold conflicting views of her taxpayer-funded job. “The minute they have someone in the nursing home they perceive to be mistreated, we’re the first people they come to,” she said. “They want us when they need us. And when they no longer need us again, they don’t want us.” Source, Emphasis added

The second was this:

Some are resentful that they are being asked to pay for benefits that they themselves struggle to afford.

I asked my brother, ‘How do you feel about this pay raise?’” Ms. Moore recalled. “He said: ‘I want you to have it. You deserve it. But we don’t feel like we should pay for it.’” Source

I think this is how this country sees teachers. People want teachers to care for children, and they want us to do a good job of educating them; for some people, that means a specific information set, and for others, it means a different set – but everyone wants us to do a good job. Unless, y’know, they don’t actually have kids and don’t need to think about education, in which case, they’d really like us to just go away. Or else they don’t want to pay for us personally, and they think only parents should pay for us. (This attitude, held by the many retirees who come to Arizona for the winter months – the so-called “Snowbirds” – is a large part of the reason why Arizona teachers are the worst paid in the nation.) Or, of course, they don’t know who should pay for us: so long as it isn’t them, personally. (This also may be where the Snowbirds land.) I’m sure there are some who are resentful of teachers making more money or having better benefits than they themselves have, but that’s an insupportable argument if it comes only from envy: you can argue that teachers should make less money if you have an argument why teachers are worth less money. For many people, that argument starts and stops with good benefits and summers off and “spending all day with children.”

None of which, I hope I’ve shown, are actually true. The benefits are gone; the summers off never existed; I haven’t talked about the lil angels we get to spend all day with, but I doubt most people believe that. Because of course they aren’t angels. You weren’t, were you? Neither was I.

People want us to do a good job, but they don’t want to pay us to do a good job. They want to pay us the bare minimum, and ask us to do the maximum – because it’s for the children. And while we should do the very best we can, for the sake of the children and for society, that doesn’t mean we should be paid the very least we can survive on at the same time. Because that isn’t for the children: that’s for the people who just don’t want to pay us. Who maybe think we deserve more money, but they don’t want to be the ones footing the bill.

The last month or so has shown us the new truth: teachers are done with this trade-off, our best for taxpayers’ least. There has been a long slow slide down, which has taken advantage of career teachers who don’t want to look for new jobs; and which has taken advantage of old benefit packages which have been traded for pay cuts (The time has run out on this one, since there isn’t any more pay to cut, and so those benefits have been cut, too); and which has taken advantage of teachers’ general sense of goodwill and public service to the community. A lot of us want to teach in the places we grew up, and places that pay less, like Arizona and Oklahoma and Kentucky and West Virginia, have surely taken advantage of that. One of the best teachers at my school, my department chair, is still there despite being overworked and underpaid and being treated generally shabbily, for all three of these reasons: she grew up here, she’s been a teacher here for 25 years, she’s willing to make a little less if her benefits would be a little better.

What does it say about us as a nation that we treat people like that so poorly? We liberals rant and rave about how President Trump makes us look bad: but we all let teaching get to where it is. All of us.

And then, of course, there is the biggest reason why teachers don’t make enough: we care. We usually want to do a good job. We usually care about children, and about education, and we are sympathetic to the needs of families. When I was running the union negotiations, the biggest hurdle we had to overcome wasn’t the district, or the parents: it was the other teachers. Many of them wanted to cut their own pay because that would have saved other teachers’ jobs. Many of them wanted to accept whatever was offered, just so long as they got to keep teaching; and whether or not they could afford to live on their salary didn’t matter: their students needed them. It’s the same reason why, when classroom supply budgets get cut, most teachers go right out and buy the supplies themselves, even though in many communities, the parents make more than the teachers. But we do it because the kids really need those supplies. If the kids don’t have those supplies, we can’t do that project, and that project is really effective – plus the kids love it. We’re nice people, and that makes us saps. It also makes us good at our jobs. But we only get paid like saps. And then they ask us to do a little more, to give a little more, to work a little harder. For the children.

It’s gone too far. Teachers are going on strike, even without a union to protect their jobs and pay them partial wages, as would have happened had my own negotiation broken down that far. (It didn’t. We took the deal the district offered us. We saved jobs, lost money, and kept teaching. Of course. But Oregon has farther to fall before it reaches where Arizona is now.) Despite all the reasons why we don’t want to, we’re walking out of our classrooms, walking out of our schools, walking out on our students and our careers. We’re no longer willing to do this for what America seems willing to pay us. Either we get paid more, or we stop doing this. I say, we need to get paid enough to pay for two people, with no kids and no expensive habits, to build up some savings and maybe buy a house. Not just because that would suit me, but because I think it’s reasonable based on the value of services rendered. I will endeavor to prove that in another blog, hopefully tomorrow.

We’re good at our jobs. Unless America doesn’t want us to do our jobs any more, then we say we need to be paid more. Starting right now.

And you know what? We’re right.

After all, we’re teachers.

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