by Ninive Calegari
(originally published on the Washington Post Answer Sheet)
Kory O'Rourke teaches English at a public high school in San Francisco. She has 125 students spread over 5 classes. She starts her days at 6 a.m. and works without stopping - not for a lunch date, not for Internet shopping. She works at full speed, all day and then grades sand preps at night. This week, she's teaching her classes, helping her students turn in missing work, complete final projects, and prepare for final exams. That's during the day.
By 4:30 p.m., she’s in her Mazda, shuttling strangers to and fro as she drives for Lyft or Uber. She often picks up foreign tourists who are often curious about their drivers’ stories. Usually, they are shocked that a public school teacher would be forced to resort to a second job. American passengers are different. Their response? “Driving a cab is a great job for a teacher!”
Is it “great” that a teacher needs a second job so she can afford to rent a home and raise her kids? Try saying “Driving Uber is a great job for a doctor!” or “Why don’t more attorneys drive Lyft on the weekends?”
So why do we think it’s a good idea for teachers? Either we believe the job isn’t that hard or we believe it’s not worth the kind of professional compensation that we consider standard for jobs that require a similar level of education and ongoing professional development. In both cases, we need to re-examine our view of undervaluing teachers financially.
What does it mean when we live in a society when those who are trusted to take care of our future professionals are a part of our newly minted working poor? What does it mean when our fellow citizens believe that a teacher having a second job is a great idea? A teacher is the most important part of any school and undermining her financially is not allowing her to do her best work. And, her work matters deeply as she prepares her students to participate in our communities and in our shared civic life.
This past August the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute found that the pay gap for teachers is even wider than we had previously thought. Teachers pay is 17 percent lower than other professionals with similar training.
Additionally frustrating is that expert teachers with master’s degrees and 15 years experience earn less than flight attendants in Georgia (who earn on average $40,000), less than sheet metal workers in Oklahoma (who on average earn $45,000), less than truck drivers in Colorado (who on average earn $46,000) and less than Uber drivers in New York City (who can earn on average $90,000).
We have the power to change this and we must.
In November, Oklahoma voters rejected a measure that would have provided all teachers with an immediate $5,000 cost of living adjustment, paid for by a one percent hike in the sales tax. The measure failed by an enormous margin with 59.4 percent of voters opposed to raising the money for a shared better future.
In a recent interview with Tulsa World, Richard Patterson, a teacher in Oklahoma, said he was reluctant to advocate for the change in legislation because it felt uncomfortable to ask for a raise for himself. He will continue to teach high school students and at the same time he will work at Walmart. Shawn Sheehan is Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. He earns $35,419. He recently told a non-profit education news organization, “As a 31-year-old adult with his master’s… I don’t want to keep doing this perpetual struggle until I’m 60.”
Most teachers, like Kory O’Rourke and Richard Patterson, are reluctant to advocate for higher pay for themselves. They went into a profession where they didn’t expect to make a ton of money. They understand that schools are underfunded and they are eager to do anything to improve the lives of their students, including not asking for more money for themselves.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve more. They’re not the only ones who could benefit from professional compensation. Our communities would. Our children would. Our democracy would, as well. So, given that it’s challenging for them to stand up and ask for more, we can stand up for them and we must.
The costs of not professionalizing this job will far outweigh the expenses of fair compensation.
Nationally the situation is bleak. While other professions have seen compensation growth, teachers’ salaries have stagnated for four decades. In fact, over the last decade in 30 of 50 states, teacher pay has actually not kept pace with the cost of living.
Forty-seven states face teacher shortages, and there has been a 30 percent decrease in enrollment in teacher credentialing programs in recent years. Why the decline in such a crucial profession? In most cities, the average teacher’s salary cannot compete with the cost of living, and teachers are priced out of homes in all urban areas.
Put simply: though there are pockets of successful schools with supported teachers, teaching is not generally regarded as a financially viable profession in our country. And college students know this.
For the moment, we should not kid ourselves. Allowing the status quo to continue is a choice we are making. And those great teachers who choose not to work a second job just might choose to leave the profession. Think back to the teachers who helped you become who you are today and ask yourself if you would think it was a good idea for that person to be driving Lyft, shelving Ziplock bags, or even finding necessary calories at food bank? These things are all happening to children’s favorite teachers today.
Finally, now, more than ever, if we want to fight global warming, racism, illiteracy, poverty, sexism and homophobia, we need to elevate the teaching profession to the financially viable and prestigious one it deserves to be. Elevating teachers is our chance to show what our values truly are. Let’s pay teachers what we think our students, democracy and future are worth.