Part 1: Financial Realities
Note: The following is an excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book. This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession.
You will be told to inspire but be ridiculed for your enthusiasm. You will be told to make time for yourself but expected to stay late, serve on a bunch of committees, and devote your evenings and weekends to planning, calling parents, and grading papers. You will hear the merits of creativity and responding to students’ needs but risk sanctions if you stray from curricular guides or district mandates. You will be encouraged to ensure that every child succeeds but be accused of being too easy if this actually occurs.
Our teachers are “helped” to death and are running screaming from the school because they cannot take working under such scrutiny and having to explain, report, reflect, discuss, and analyze everything we are asking them to do.
—Former assistant superintendent
You have to jump through hoops just to get to the point where you are stifled again.
—Jason McCord, teacher and therapeutic counselor
Considering the zeal and commitment of so many of the people drawn to this field—individuals who insist they were born to teach, who can not imagine themselves doing anything else with their lives, and who genuinely want to have a positive impact on future generations—how do we reconcile statistics that consistently report that half of all teachers leave the profession within five years of their first assignment? Even if we only take into account the amount of time, effort, and financial resources that each of these individuals invested just to get into a classroom in the first place, how do we make sense of a trend that shows roughly 170,000 teachers leaving the profession each year for some reason other than retirement, putting the annual cost of teacher turnover in the neighborhood of seven billion dollars.15
While the research cites a number of reasons teachers leave the profession, I believe that surprise is a significant factor in attrition—or at the very least, in the kind of discouragement and frustration that can lead to attrition—in terms of the lack of preparation for the realities of teaching expressed by many of the professionals I’ve encountered. Author Duane Inman describes what he calls “classroom or reality shock,”16 which was confirmed by quite a bit of the feedback I received from beginning teachers. Many of them, only a few weeks into their first teaching assignment, were already questioning their career choices. Although the majority of beginning teachers I interviewed were excited about what they were doing, many lamented, “This isn’t at all what I was expecting.”
Nobody enters this field hoping to fail and I doubt many go through the preparation process planning to drop out of the profession within the first few years. We not only want to make a difference, but I also believe that we want to do it well. I’m going to assume that regardless of where you are in your journey, that your goals include being a good teacher, enjoying your work, having a positive impact on your students, and maybe—be still my heart!—even having an impact on the system itself.
Now it might be easy to assume that the system actually wants all teachers and students to succeed. (Isn’t that what the brochures said?) But with very few exceptions, this is not the case. In fact, the teaching profession is structured on a number of principles and policies that pretty much guarantee a certain degree of failure—for teachers and students alike. Despite the good intentions behind many of these win-lose customs, most were forged in traditions that served the goals of a very different time. As schools catch up to the needs of current cultural, technological, and economic demands, it is my most fervent hope that the negative, anachronistic patterns that are so common—and which so often continue unquestioned—will come under greater scrutiny and eventually give way to more constructive priorities. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the factors that contribute to the win-lose context in which you may find yourself working, characteristics of the profession that can erode the most passionate and dedicated educator. These are some of the reasons most often mentioned for teachers leaving or considering a change in career. Later in this book, I will explore many of these issues in greater detail, and present some things you can do to avoid being sidelined—or surprised—by the most common of them.
In my days in the classroom, it was rare that I wasn’t also picking up a few extra dollars writing curriculum, waitressing, or working in my in-laws’ bakery, at times holding more than one additional job to make ends meet—and I wasn’t the only teacher on our staff that had at least one side job during the year. Years later, salary is still a concern for people in the profession, including a number of contributors to this book. Despite significant improvements in this area in past decades, a report by the National Education Association claims, “New teachers are often unable to pay off their loans or afford houses in the communities where they teach. Teachers and education support professionals often work two and three jobs to make ends meet. The stress and exhaustion can become unbearable, forcing people out of the profession to more lucrative positions.”17
Sixth grade teacher, Melissa Albright, said she wished she had known that salary would always be an issue. “I grew up in a family of teachers and money was scarce, however I never realized that my friends would double their salaries long before I would, and that I would not get bonuses, tickets to games, or dinners out,” she says. “With three college degrees in education, I still make less than half of what my friends do who only have one degree.” One assistant superintendent responded, when asked if he had it to do over, would he choose teaching as his career, “After thirty-six years in this business… and seeing my sons, who are in private industry, receive [five-digit], end-of-year bonuses, I would say, no. Not in this day and age.”18 Jen Buttars, sixth-grade math teacher, regretted borrowing as much money as she did for school, because it has been hard to repay her loans on a teacher’s salary. Another middle school teacher, Cheryl Converse-Rath, who was working as a substitute teacher “for daily pay and no benefits,” left teaching because she could not afford to continue working under those conditions. “I have a Master’s degree,” she says, “yet I felt like a beggar.”
One report on teacher pay claims that the “intrinsic rewards” of a career in education are “often used as a rationale for low salaries,”19 although it makes no sense that education would be the only profession subjected to this reasoning. (Imagine expecting doctors, for example, to work for the satisfaction of making people feel better or saving lives.) High school teacher Ron Dagger cautions against the myth of working for intrinsic rewards, noble though they may be. “We all do it for the money,” he says. “If you don’t believe that, check to see how many teachers return their paychecks each month.”
Nonetheless, I doubt that many people go into teaching expecting to make a killing. And while some may ultimately find their paychecks less satisfying (or adequate) than anticipated, it is doubtful that many people prepare for a teaching career unaware of the financial aspects of the job. Besides, there is a tipping point where other issues and obstacles can overwhelm the satisfaction we take in a well-received lesson or a struggling student’s sudden epiphany. Even teachers with tremendous support, materials, and freedom won’t stay long in a job that doesn’t pay the rent; and generous financial compensation—which we don’t often see in education, especially for beginning classroom teachers—won’t hold people if they are up against continually unsatisfying working conditions. While it may be easier to stay in a low-paying job when there are intrinsic rewards, when these positive experiences rarely occur, or when the negative aspects of the job outweigh the good stuff, the financial issues and discrepancies become harder to ignore.
Although one report claims that “thirty-seven percent of teachers who do not plan to continue teaching until retirement blame low pay for their decision to leave the profession,” much of the research and personal feedback I’ve encountered suggests that job dissatisfaction claims even larger numbers.20 University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersol notes, “Novice teachers are much more likely to call it quits if they work in schools where they feel they have little input or support.”21 And author Cynthia Kopkowski notes, “the underlying issue on salary often comes down to [a lack of] respect.”22
Interestingly, all of the survey respondents who mentioned teacher pay did so in the context of some negative aspect of their teaching experience. For example, my friend who mentioned his sons’ bonuses also cited “seeing how the attitudes of the teachers, students and parents have changed” over the years. One fourth grade teacher wrote, “If I had to do it over again, I would have become an attorney and made triple the money, and not have to deal with disrespectful children all day.” A professional development project coordinator mentioned “too much responsibility for the pay” and the fact that “teachers do not get the respect they deserve from students and parents” or adequate support from administrators. And another long-time assistant superintendent mentioned “a bureaucracy that suffocates this field” in addition to “the lack of financial incentive to stay in this career path.” It was never just about the money.
Click here to continue reading this chapter. (List of chapters below.)
15 From a variety of sources, including Cynthia Kopkowski, “Why They Leave,” NEA Today (Feb. 2008): 21-25; Roseanne Skirble, citing a report by the National Education Association in “Fifty Percent of New Teachers Quit Profession within Five Years,” Available: Voice of America Web site: http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2008-03/2008-02-26-voa34.cfm; Nancy Gibbs, “Parents Behaving Badly,” Time (February 21, 2005): 42; “Professional Pay: Myths and Facts.” Available: National Education Association Web site, http://www.nea.org/pay/teachermyths.html; Claudia Wallis, “How To Make Great Teachers,” Time (February 25, 2008): 31; and “Report: Teacher Retention Biggest School Woe,” Jan. 29, 2003. Available CNN Web site: http://www.cnn.com/2003/EDUCATION/01/29/teacher.shortage.ap/, which also notes that “about one-third quit during their first three years…” and that “turnover is highest in poor, predominantly minority schools.” According to Kopkowski (p. 21), teacher attrition rose fifty percent in the past fifteen years. Finally, a report by Duane Inman noted that “most teachers who leave have fewer than ten years’ teaching experience.” (“Teacher Retention: Why Do Beginning Teachers Remain In The Profession?” (2004). Available: BNET Business Network Web site, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3673/is_200407/ai_n9421952/print)
16 Duane Inman, “Teacher Retention: Why Do Beginning Teachers Remain In The Profession?” (2004). Available: BNET Business Network Web site, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3673/is_200407/ai_n9421952/print
17 “Professional Pay: Myths and Facts.”
18 I know a very bright, self-taught IT specialist with a high school diploma and a few courses toward an associate degree whose end-of-the-year bonuses are bigger than my highest annual salary ever was working for a school district or college. Many people live very comfortably on a teacher’s salary, depending on where they live and where they teach, but relative to compensation people in other fields receive, unless things change pretty significantly, “the growing salary gap between teachers and other professionals” can be pretty discouraging, and will continue to be a factor, not only in teachers leaving the field, but in deciding on other career choices. (Chaika, Glori. “The Teacher Shortage: Apply, Please!”, March, 2000. Available, Education World Web site, http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin155.shtml)
19 “Professional Pay: Myths and Facts.”
20 Kopkowski reports fifty-six percent of teachers leaving because of job dissatisfaction in 2005 (p. 21); Skirble notes that NEA surveys also include poor working conditions among the “major factors in this exodus of teachers;” also, “Professional Pay: Myths and Facts;” also Inman.
21 Quoted in Claudia Wallis, “How To Make Great Teachers,” Time (February 25, 2008): 31.
22 Kopkowski, 24.
Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book. For full bibliography listing all of the the resources used in this book (and details on the references listed above), click here.
This chapter includes six challenges facing people in the teaching profession:
Photo credit: I did not find the name of the photographer, but found this photo on an eHow post titled “Alternative Jobs for Frustrated Teachers” by Rebekah Worsham. Among the links on this page were articles such as “Frustrated Teachers Say Profession is Losing Respect“ and “How to Use Your Teaching Certificate to find a Non-Teaching Job.” I find the proliferation of articles such as these incredibly depressing, reflecting an obvious need I wish did not exist. I am frankly frightened for the direction this profession is taking, one that seems to be pushing dedicated individuals into other careers. Respectful comments welcome.
Also check out:
Book: Managing 21st Century Classrooms: How to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers”
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers”
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