Why teachers stop teaching
Today, my local newspaper published an article blaming teachers for the shortcomings of our schools. Not teachers' skills, or dedication, or knowledge in their subject areas, but their paychecks. Basically, the TL;DR version of the article, and to be very honest, there's no actual reason to read the article because the "journalist" (and I use the term very loosely) just made up a lot of crap, is that the school district is having massive financial problems (true) which is a direct result of teachers fighting for pay raises.
Let me just start with some basic facts, because this is not going to be pretty.
I started teaching in 2007. My base salary was just under $30,000.00 per year in a large urban area. I made so little money that as a single person, I qualified for county housing assistance for two years.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I was a full time teacher. The county subsidized my housing. More amazingly, the county had a special housing subsidy program JUST. FOR. TEACHERS. I am not kidding. I'm not sure if it still exists, but from May 2007 - February 2009 I received a rental rebate every month. After I paid my rent, my leasing agent signed a form and gave me a copy of the receipt. I sent that in to an office and they sent me a check.
Between 2007 - 2017, annual raises were rare. In 2016, teachers did negotiate for a new salary table with a starting salary of $40,000.00. While that isn't terrible for a first year teacher, the new contract also stipulated that anyone currently making less than 40K would just bump up to 40K and call it good. Thousands of teachers that had been working in the school district - some as long as five years - were starting over at the bottom of the ladder. That stung a little.
The rest of us just moved onto a square on the new table that was "nearest, but not less than" our current salary. Some people got a few dollars more, others got a few hundred dollars annual increase. Around the same time the teachers' self-funded insurance co-op began collapsing on itself from a lack of funding. The school district hadn't increased per person contributions in years. The structure completely changed and suddenly what had been a good insurance plan turned into a nightmare of bureaucracy with deductibles, unpredictable co-pays, and medical bills going into collections. Everyone is pointing fingers and blaming the other side.
Between the contract negotiations in December 2015 and July 2017, there was a lot of argument about what teachers needed to do to earn pay raises. Different documents had vastly different standards of the stupidly complicated process and the court had to get involved.
To add insult to injury, just a few days ago, the district announced pay freezes for all teaching staff - for the 5th time since 2007.
Ok - that was a lot of lead in.
What does any of it have to do with teachers leaving the profession? Obviously, you can see that teachers are literally fighting for their paychecks every year. They aren't getting regular raises - merit based, cost-of-living, or otherwise. In ten years, I got few raises that were not connected to additional education that I sought out. I got two cost of living increases. I got four "annual" (ha!) step increases.
It was so amazingly frustrating. I felt unappreciated and disrespected. The school district spent millions of dollars on "consultants" to come in to observe our classrooms to tell us how to improve our practices - at one point they sent Camelot Education, who were accused of physically abusing students. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new reading or math programs every couple of years, only to abandon them a couple years later when something else came along. In 2015, they spent nearly 100 million to develop a series of assessments that were abandoned when the contractor admitted they couldn't do what they were asked. The waste is immense. But, when teachers demand a reasonable salary increases, they claim they do not have the funds.
Teachers are well educated professional adults. They need to be treated as such. And they need to be paid as such - or they will eventually stop teaching. People always say "no one goes into teaching for the money." That is true - but no one will continue teaching if they can't feed their family, or buy a home, or a car. And no one should expect them to.
As a society, we don't have issue paying other professionals a reasonable salary. The average first year salaries for a few professions are below (per salary.com):
Dental hygienist - $60,200
Police Officer $49,000
I tried to choose a variety that required similar education levels, some a bit more, some a bit less. However, they are all trained and licensed "professionals". The average teacher has 5-6 years of post high school education - similar to a nurse. However, a teacher makes significantly less, and as a society, most people are ok with that.
Teachers are no less important to society than police officers or nurses. Depending on where they live and teach, their jobs can be just as dangerous. Teachers in urban areas are regularly assaulted, harassed, and victims of crime. They see their assailants in closed rooms every single day. Teachers work long hours and are expected to organize fundraisers and spend their own money on supplies; no other professional is expected to open their own wallet to provide basic consumable items for their job function. Would we expect nurses to purchase their own syringes? Of course not.
Obviously there's a problem. What is the solution? I believe it comes in two parts.
1. We need to revise our expectations for teachers. It is not their job to supply the students with consumable supplies. It is not their job to outfit the classroom with basic needs. We need to stop seeing teachers as these altruistic selfless beings (which many are), and start respecting them as the educated professionals they are.
2. We need to stop demonizing teachers when they ask for reasonable salaries. Better salaries will attract better talent. That has been proven time and again around the world. Teacher shortages are becoming dire and something needs to change. Districts have tried a lot of things, but they haven't tried paying more. Try paying more. Not just the new teachers. Everyone. Pay people what they deserve and see if you don't get value for you investment.