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24 February 2011


Snow fell off and on yesterday and today school is closed. I stayed till 7pm last night, watching the roads on the internet to ensure the snow didn’t start sticking before I went home. On Wednesday evenings I stay with a math teacher to keep the Library open for kids who need help, are retaking tests, or who need computer access. When I packed up for home I lugged the tests I needed to score home but left an eight-inch stack of essays in my room. I’ll get to them this weekend and adjust the due date for the other essay that students were supposed to hand in tomorrow. But today is a snow day, and I'm loving it.

I love my job. I say that all the time and it’s true. I’m good at it and I still have a measure of autonomy in my classroom. I can be creative and innovative and my administration actually appreciates me for doing it (I think). I’ve gone gray in this profession. I love my job. I’m proud of the work I do.

Many of my former students have become teachers or are thinking of becoming teachers. And I love them for that too, but it also makes me want to cry, because teachers are not in the same position they were when I was young, or even when I entered the profession.

Ten reasons you don’t want to become a teacher:
10. The pay is less than you think. I read on Facebook that if you want “abundant wealth” you should choose the private sector.
9. There is no longer job security. My school lost ten teachers last year.
8. Your pension isn’t safe—it looks like a pile of money to the public, waiting to be looted.
7. Parents don’t trust you.
6. The community thinks you have too much time off. They need to hire a sitter for those stupid planning days.
5. Even if you teach that kid to read and get him off the streets and are answerable about whether he passes or does not pass all the new tests, you are not heroes like  police officers and firefighters—who receive better pay and a sweeter pension package.
4. If you have a personal blog, watch your words because freedom of speech doesn’t apply to teachers.
3. Summers you will either be working a second job or going to school or both.
2. For the same amount of education you could be a nurse with a specialty making twice as much money and no homework on the weekend. You could be a lawyer and work as hard for a lot more money, or a doctor, X-ray technician, plumber, electrician...

The number 1 reason not to become a teacher: 1. Everything is your fault.
  • You’re a lousy teacher. If students are unmotivated, tired, hungry, sleepy, sick, absent, homeless, or in jail, you should have motivated them to show up to school every day and complete their homework.
  • You make too much money. Compare your income with seven or more years of university education, Masters degree, and twenty years of experience to the wages of the drop-out pumping gas (who you should have motivated to stay in school) and you are paid way too much. You have all that time off and we don’t want to hear any whining about class planning and scoring papers and all that.
  • You cause social injustice. If you marry another teacher—surprise! you have an actual middle class income capable of paying for your own children’s college education. But wait! That’s okay for lawyers. Everyone understands that if two doctors marry they will have a double income. If teachers do that it’s simply unfair. Teachers should be paid less so that if they marry another of their kind they won’t be earning over a hundred thousand dollars between them… after a combined 14 years education and 30 years of teaching experience. [Seriously, I’ve heard this argument.]
  • It’s your union’s fault the economy is a mess. That pension and all those great benefits like health coverage—all that stuff your union got for you—is just too much. You may have paid in, but if we could just take that money we promised you'd get back eventually and spend it on other stuff we wouldn’t have to raise taxes.
  • And another thing, your union and tenure are allowing lousy teachers to ruin kids’ education. If it weren’t for unions and tenure there would be no bad teachers. Look how well that approach has worked for politicians, plumbers, and physicians.
Obama wants the same thing Bush wanted, a better education system without having to pay more for it. “You can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it.” Right? “You get what you pay for” is another cliché. There’s truth in both, but diamonds cost more than glass. A couch from Ethan Allen is going to cost more than one from the junk store, and anyone who thinks they can rely on a junk store couch having the quality of the new custom-built model is deceiving themselves. Try sitting on them. If we want better schools and better teachers, we’re going to have to find a way to make working in schools more attractive. We could start by offering more money and security and respect.

Unions don’t protect bad teachers. Neither does tenure, assuming you have it in your state. I watched two teachers pushed out of the profession while we still had tenure and it wasn’t any harder than it would be to get rid of a factory worker management didn’t want, and it was a heck of a lot easier than getting rid of a bad doctor, and doctors technically don’t have a union. What doctors and lawyers have is the ability to command a professional salary and to move to another hospital or firm that offers them a better deal. Teachers can almost never do that.

Teachers are paid on a set scale that compensates their labor based on years of education and years of experience. However, no school district hires the best qualified teacher—they hire the one they can afford. That means they will start any new teacher at the lowest level they can get away with. Fresh out of college, inexperienced teachers are cheap hires and a cheap hire saves the school district money. Those new teachers last, on average four years, because the work is harder than they expected. A strong and experienced teacher, by contrast, would cost more, even though districts can almost never afford to pay them a wage that would coax them away from a current employee—and isn’t that how it’s done in professions? If a firm wants that better lawyer, they offer him or her more money. A great carpenter with a great reputation, commands top dollar. No one in another district would hire me for what I am paid in my current job. If I left for another district for a school in Portland, for example, I would be credited with only 7 years of experience rather than the 24 I have and I would be paid less. They can’t afford to start a teacher on my pay. It’s not in their budget. And if I wanted to move, I couldn’t afford the pay cut. It would take me 8 years to recover my current salary.

What this means is that if school districts wanted to hire the best available teachers, they would have to revamp the way teachers are paid. I’m not talking about paying people for raising their students’ test score—recent research shows this isn’t effective—it means we’d need some way to offer better teachers (“better” by some standard) higher wages. And, most critically, it would mean schools would have to have the extra money lying around to lure those “better teachers” away from their current employer. They don’t.

I am 58, and I’ve taught since completing 3 undergraduate degrees with honors and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Washington. I have a masters degree in my field. I work 50-60 hours a week and throughout the holidays and I STILL have to listen to complaints about my imaginary 3 months off every summer and how tenure protects bad teachers (we have no tenure in Oregon public schools) and how my pension is breaking the state budget (I paid into my pension). I’m supposed to be better qualified, better trained, work harder, and do it all on less salary and with no guarantee that the terms under which I was hired will be honored. Already those terms haven’t been honored and what I was expecting upon retirement has been halved. 

Speaking only for myself, I have no complaints about my salary, but I would have to work into my 70s before my retirement income would come close enough to my salary after working in this profession since 1976 and adding Social Security. I took time out to stay home with my sons, but I have over 20 years teaching in my district and I don’t know when I will be able to retire. Teacher pensions have already been gutted in my state and the public seems to want more from me for even less respect and autonomy, not to mention less security in my old age. People who could barely tolerate being in the same room with their own sons and daughters while they were teenagers blame me when I can’t get them to do their homework. It wears me out.

A recent post on Facebook from a former teacher turned wealthy self-described “Capitalist” explained that if people want “abundant wealth” they will have to leave teaching. He illustrates this with an analogy: “Should trash collectors be paid more than the avg worker? about it....Who would you miss more the garbage man, or some Nuclear Physicist?” [I'm not sure if teachers are the trash collectors or the scientists in this scenario.] “Bottom line is-- tax payers pay the bill in the public sector... Therefore, it is expected to be a life of service for those who work in our communities...Not a life of abundant wealth...If one is concerned with earning top dollar, then they need to find a job in the ‘private sector,’ where one because of ‘Capitalism’ can earn as much as they desire. So either one should choose to serve the people, or take their talents elsewhere. Teachers work for the public and have to expect a life of service.” More and more, the person some people seem to want in their school is not a teacher, but a nun. Or someone to work purely out of the goodness of their heart. And it's true that it takes a lot of heart to teach, but that doesn't excuse paying teachers second rate wages just because they work in public schools. Second rate earns second rate.

In fact we’d have to expect second rate in all public sector jobs. And I do not want second rate air traffic controllers or safety inspectors or police officers or teachers. I don’t think we can expect anyone to work out of the goodness of their heart, as the Facebook poster above seems to expect. When I was a girl I had fantastic teachers... because they were women with limited opportunities and men on the GI bill and the first generation to climb out of hard blue collar jobs.

Today I think we're going to have to pay for what we get or we’re going to get what we pay for. That’s true whoever is doing the hiring.

If we want to improve teaching and teachers, it only makes sense that, in order to accomplish that, we expect to pay for it. Otherwise we can only afford second rate. 

PLEASE READ MY FOLLOW-UP POST: And why you should do it anyway... You can find the follow up HERE.


  1. I was just talking to my husband about this last night. I am in my 4th year and feel really "lucky" to have gotten out of my program when I did and land a job. Our district hired a few new teachers last year because of a retirement deal and the district took me to the job fair to help meet candidates. The sheer amount of out of work teachers as well as new teachers who have yet to have their first "real job" was OVERWHELMING.

  2. Part of me will always want to be a teacher! But I'm glad I didn't go into the program I planned to (3 years ago)... I imagine I'd be looking a load of debt and no job square in the face right now, or if I had a job it wouldn't be teaching what I want to teach. So instead I make the same amount of money by selling produce and not going into debt to do so. There is something wrong with this picture!!

  3. So well stated, Jan! Thanks for having the courage to speak this.

  4. Breaks my heart, Jan. There were only a select handful of teachers that I truly loved and admired in school. You are on the top. I still talk about your classes and how much I loved them. YOU are an amazing teacher who has changed the lives of many children. Thank you for everything you do.
    Did you read the post I put on facebook about Teachers? The title was shocking, but it goes into detail about just how little teachers make, on average $1.42 per child, per hour. Considerably less than a child care provider.
    So sad.

  5. Thanks for commenting, everyone!

    I am not a cynic, but I do know people who still think teaching will give them summers off and everything will be wonderful. They don't last and unless they wise up, they shouldn't last as teachers. A new teacher once told me that it was the easiest job he'd ever had. I was speechless with rage. "Then you're not doing it right," I should have told him. However, he wised up soon enough and work his behind off like the rest of us.

    As my follow-up post makes clear (I hope), I love my job and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to teach for so many years. Tonya, yes, I enjoyed your post. It's been around for a while.

  6. Wow, this post is amazing. I've had my teaching license for 5 years now and have had two years as a "temporary" teacher and 3 as a sub. I have never received full benefits, I've had to pay for all of my continuing ed, professional conferences, etc out-of-pocket even when I was teaching in one school. I sometimes think about trying a different career but there is nothing like teaching!

  7. Thank you, GT—you go girl! I wrote the other side (way easier) the same day. The problem, as I see it, is that people think that those with passion, heart, and ability, will continue to choose a profession once it's gutted, defined by tests, and no longer respected. If I'd been in it for the money, I would have chosen another profession. That doesn't mean I'm willing to be treated as a nun, who works out of religious obligation.

    But the final truth is that I love my job.

    1. Yup! I taught high school mathematics for three years in Northern Ireland, in my own old school, including the Advanced Mathematics. I did so when I concluded I wasn't cut out for a career in nuclear fusion research, and neither was anybody else until computers could do the algebra. This was when the speed of the University computer was one instruction per 64 microseconds, if I remember correctly. The fast registers stored the bits as sound pulses in a mercury tube.

      After three years, and one of my students asking why a man as clever as I was teaching, I went to work for IBM as a systems programmer, on computers which boasted a quarter of a megabyte of ferrite-core memory, long before memory was called RAM. But one of my students was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and his son, with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, is teaching mathematics in a private school.

  8. I feel your pain. This is my last year. I am sufferring from stress related ailments. After 25 years, this job has changed so much. It is no longer the exciting job it used to be. I could not agree with you more with everything you posted. Am I jaded? You bet I am! I would not reccomend teaching to my worst enemy!

  9. I am so sorry you are leaving the profession with such an unhappy feeling, Anonymous.

    My dentist is a former student and he commented to me that all the teachers he sees have teeth damaged from grinding and other stress-related behaviors.

    With 36 years in the profession, I will probably be working another 8 years. My 3 years teaching in a private school give me nothing toward retirement, and neither does subbing over a period of 11 years. There are days when I feel I need to walk away simply to save my sanity. But I've managed to get through the bad times and more days are still good.

    Still, this year has been very hard and I've considered alternatives...

    I wish you a better retirement! You've earned it.

  10. quite interesting,some very different reasons to leave teaching than those that we have in the uk. Http://

  11. Stumbled across this I prepare for the new school year I feel so underappreciated, and stressed about being in the teaching professsion. I am beginning my 7th year of teaching (my last), and enjoyed reading your insights into the profession of teaching. I am going to pursue a law degree and although it is scary at times, I know it will be more satisfying in the long run.

  12. Oh, Anonymous, I'm sorry you're going to law school. I'm sorry because times are hard for lawyers because there's a glut of them at the moment, and I'm also sorry because the teaching profession is losing you. I doubt you will find it more satisfying, but maybe I only think that because I've never even been to the tropics on vacation. I hope you will read my follow-up post:

  13. I didn't hear Obama saying that just throwing money at education wouldn't fix it. The very simplest improvements I can think of would be:
    First, halve the size of teachers' classes (we'd have to double the number of teachers, so the cost would be doubling the money paid out in salaries)
    Second, cut the size of schools to where the Principal can recognise every student, at least after the first year of their attendance. That, too, will cost money.
    Third, DO NOT require teenagers to get up bleary-eyed in the morning to attend school at an hour such that it suits the cost of running school buses.

    1. Thanks for this. Of course, this is the sort of school that wealthy people and politicians send their own children to. Forget vouches. I can't help wondering how much faster actual public school improvement might be accomplished if EVERYONE had to send their children to public schools. Finland did that when they restructured their system and it's become the poster child for what actually works--well trained teachers, small classrooms, shorter school days for students, more prep time for teachers, and equity from top to bottom and sideways. Sound good?

    2. I didn't quote Obama, by the way. “You can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it.” and “You get what you pay for.” are clichés. Both have been said by many people, including about education—especially by people who do, in fact, spend a great deal more on a private school education for their children.

      I taught in a private school and here is the one enormous difference: In a private school if parents are not supportive or a child is failing classes, causing problems, or otherwise doing badly, that student is gone. Public schools do not have that option. Everyone has the right to a free public education and that means I have taught convicted sex-offenders and felons and students who are mentally ill and severely emotionally disturbed. It means that in my classroom may be several students who are there because it's a condition of their parole to attend school, but not a condition that they pass a class. Students remain in classes because they want to hang out with friends, though they have no intention of passing any subject. Students remain in school despite their attitude that the teacher is only there to annoy them.

      Most of my students are hand-working and doing their best. Some have supportive homes and strong wills. Some do not, but manage as best they can.

      Too many students come to class handicapped by poverty, illness, or idiot parents. I've seen parents say and do things during a conference that were so outrageous I was required to report the behavior to Child Services. And that was in front of a teacher whom everyone must understand is a mandatory reporter!

      I'm not entirely convinced about the need for teenagers to sleep later—though I'm pretty certain that giving up soda and late night texting and gaming would help. Still. Could we run school from 10-5? Sure, and the busses could run any time. It might simply be tradition that keep us on the current clock. But also students have sports after school that sometimes require hours past school hours in my district. Exercise for an hour a day will keep a body in shape, but it might not make a winner, and it might not instill the proper team spirit. So we have to be done with classes in time to get in at least a couple of hours of practice before dinner. Some kids practice twice a day and many forget that sport isn't necessary to success, but Algebra and decent grammar might be. If the day started later, football practice would begin at dawn.

  14. Jan, I noted your comment on Strunk and White, but I'm old fashioned enough to think they're the best.
    Two of the best experts on computer languages, Kernigan and Plauger, wrote a book called "The Elements of Programming Style" which is wonderfully terse and good advice. The name, and probably the style, is modelled on Strunk and White.

    An instructor I had on writing good instructions for computer applications, said that if you write "different than" nobody will notice, but you'll go to the bad hot place when you die (actually he used the shorter name). Then he said that he didn't believe in post mortem punishment.

  15. For grammar help, I'd recommend Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl online or in print. Strunk and White has good advice on style.

    The Oxford comma forever!


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