Sorting through piles of past-their-prime periodicals, I happened upon a back issue of the Teach for America alumni magazine, One Day. Since finishing my stint with Teach for America ten years ago and putting my teaching career on hold three years ago, I haven’t given as much thought to issues of education policy as I once did. Something in this issue caught my eye, however: an article on teacher compensation.
There were many things that I loved about teaching: the kids (most of them, at least), the constant learning, the sense of doing Important Work. Oh yeah, and the summer vacations. Among the things that I liked less were the relative lack of respect my career choice garnered me among some of my peers. Oh yeah, and the fact that I could barely afford, even as a single, dependent-free woman, to live in Manhattan – the very borough where I taught – because my salary was so low.
The article “A Just Reward” examines the idea of performance pay for teachers and considers the merits of compensating teachers based on how well their students “do” – on what exactly, it’s not always clear. Quoted in the article is a college classmate of mine, and fellow TFA alumnus, Zeke Vanderhoek, who founded a New York City charter school where the starting salary for each of the school’s teachers is $125,000 (literally five times the amount I made as a teacher in New York City in 1998; median pay for New York teachers without a master’s degree is now $53,000). Vanderhoek’s teachers work longer hours and meet far higher demands and, according to him, are paid accordingly.
For ten years, I was a very hard-working teacher. I prepped lessons, graded papers, communicated with parents, and coached teams before and after the school day and on weekends. I never felt that I was working fewer hours than my friends at law firms and on Wall Street.
Until the summer, that is. Sure, I spent plenty of time doing school-related work during the summer. But the rhythm of my life changed in a way that allowed me – even if only for those two months – to achieve a work-life balance that is unattainable for so many. I scraped by on my meager income and didn’t gripe about it that much because I felt like I was living a manageable life.
But the stakes have changed in the teaching world, even in the few years since I’ve left it. Teaching to the test has become the gray reality many teachers face. But even when not gearing their lessons to help their students make gains on statewide exams, some teachers excel and others don’t. As an article in The New Yorker so painfully analyzed this summer, there is a reason that the profession is saddled with so many negative stereotypes and it was both frustrating and demoralizing to work alongside those whose commitment was so much lower than my own and that of the majority of my colleagues.
Would I have liked to have been paid more for the work I was doing, for the results my kids were getting? Sure. Do I think that is a good model for our teacher compensation system? Not so sure.
In your opinion, which professions deserve the highest compensation? How do you feel about merit pay for teachers?
Image: Red Delicious by Bangin via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.