Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Just the other day I read another online article about a young, bright, sincere teacher who announced that he’s leaving the teaching profession after a couple of years. His comments were typical: it’s not like I thought it would be. I’m not making enough money. The kids are disrespectful. There’s too much paperwork. I’m not making enough money (oops, I said that already.)
My response to those articles is: Huh?
I can’t think of another job for which qualified candidates should be more knowledgeable and prepared. (A physician or nurse would be a close second.) Most – if not all – education students complete at least one classroom internship. Salary schedules and school reports are public documents, and easily accessed. There is simply no good reason for being completely surprised with a teaching job. Either you didn’t look, or you weren't paying attention.
Apologies if that was too rough. But it’s a lot like buying a used car, except the stakes are much higher. When you buy a used car, you do your research. You use the Internet to find a fair asking price. You pay $75 to have a qualified mechanic inspect the car. You buy a CarFax to make sure the car hasn’t been totaled or flooded. You work with your banker to see how much car you can afford.
A career choice deserves at least that much due diligence.
This blog post is targeted at students considering the teaching profession. I am certainly not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone about a teaching career. That’s an individual decision that you have to make for yourself. It is my hope that this information will find its audience.
The purpose of this article can be summarized in three words: Eyes Wide Open.
Teacher salary is often the main reason for new teacher attrition. Even if low pay is a secondary reason, it’s likely the tipping point. In other words, they’d put up with the other hassles if it paid more.
Salary First, realize that most school districts publish their teacher salary schedules online. That document is easily accessed and easily understood. If you’re interested in working for a school district and you can’t find their salary schedule online, call the human resources office and they’ll point you in the right direction. (Hint: sometimes it’s an appendix in the “Negotiated Agreement”- aka the teacher contract.)
Teachers are contracted on a yearly basis, so you can divide that amount by 12 to get your monthly salary. Unfortunately, that’s not your take-home pay. From that monthly salary you should deduct taxes, insurance, and union dues. Your district may also require a donation to your retirement account. What’s the total of all of these deductions? It varies, state to state. Your internship supervising teacher can be a great source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask. Of course the deductions described above aren’t unique to teaching. Everyone who works has payroll deductions.
Cost of Living The flip-side of the salary coin is the cost of living for the school district. In some counties a $50,000 annual salary will buy you a modest home and a comfortable lifestyle. In other areas, it’s barely a livable wage. Once again, the Internet is a wonderful place for finding home/apartment prices and utility rates. Research is the key to avoiding financial disillusionment.
Let’s Get Real A beginning teacher salary provides enough money for a modest lifestyle. If you’ve told yourself that you “need” a new car, a fancy home, and an extravagant yearly vacation, you probably won’t be happy with a beginning teacher’s salary.
Beginning teachers can become frustrated with the slow pace of their advancement on the salary schedule. Teacher salaries are based on your highest college degree and years of service. Yes, the experienced teacher next door may be making twice your salary. But that’s the system. (Make sure to ask that teacher about her first-year salary.) Also, there’s rarely a mechanism for earning bonuses. Coaches and band directors can earn supplements, but most will tell you that they’re underpaid for those extra hours.
However, realize that over the long haul, teaching offers a great deal of financial stability. Every year you’ll make a little bit more as you climb the salary ladder, and the entire salary schedule often adjusts to meet the cost of living. The insurance is typically affordable, and retirement is achievable at the 30 or 35 year mark, which is much earlier than many careers.
Another source of new teacher frustration is “the job” itself. Teachers complain about mountains of paperwork, extensive lesson plan requirements, and draconian evaluation systems. “I just want to focus on teaching!”
At some point, all teachers have had this fantasy: the room is silent, and 25 students stare attentively toward the front of the room. The teacher steps on a small platform and begins his discourse. Perhaps he recites a Shakespearean sonnet, dissects strategies of the Peloponnesian War, or explains the relevance of the Pythagorean Theorem to modern engineering. The students hang on every word, and frantically scribble notes in an effort to capture the very essence of the presentation. Forty-five minutes later, the teacher stops talking and bows his head. The room erupts in applause, several students weep, and the school resource office must forcibly clear the classroom as the bell rings….
…Wake up! WAKE UP!!!
Teaching’s not like that. Not even close. Of course, your internship made that clear, right? Unfortunately, many teachers enter the field with that expectation, and are disappointed when their classes don’t fit the fantasy profile.
Paperwork, lesson planning, and teacher evaluations are all important parts of a teaching career. Sure, sometimes it seems like there’s just too much. And yes, it would be nice to use that time to develop lessons. But understand that the current teaching job description includes these tasks and they do fill an important role: documentation. Education is almost completely standards-based. We’ve moved away from the teacher-centered classroom. You need to be able to document the lessons you present that teach each standard. Teacher evaluations can be tedious and nerve-wracking, but they show that you are an accomplished teacher, not just a college graduate. As data scientist W. Edwards Deming so famously stated, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In today’s educational system, you need data to document your student’s achievements and your professional accomplishments.
The Respect Issue
Some new teachers cite the lack of respect as a reason for leaving the teaching profession. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years, and I believe that the level of respect that teachers receive from students and parents is an individual characteristic, and not a societal perception. In other words, if students and parents don’t respect the teachers, it’s more about them, and less about you. Don’t take it personally.
I have worked at schools where the teachers were treated as respected members of the community. Parents would make a special effort to thank teachers for their hard work. At one school, Teacher Appreciation Day turned into Teacher Appreciation Week, with themed buffet lunches every day in the teachers’ lounge. A year later I worked in another district where the school and teachers were held in very low esteem.
We had great faculties at both schools, and my skills certainly hadn’t deteriorated over the summer. So what was the difference? -- the attitudes of the communities. The first community was a very respectful community. They recognized education as their child’s ticket to a successful future. They honored military members, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, too. The second community was disrespectful. They were disrespectful to all authority figures, their neighbors, and their family members. Unfortunately, some communities are just like that.
So my advice: XYZ. Examine Your Zip code. If you feel disrespected as a teacher, it’s probably because the values of the community don’t match your personal values, and you just don’t feel like putting up with it. Trust me – there are communities that would love to have sincere, hard-working teachers. And from my experience, this has little to do with the socioeconomics of the neighborhood.
Some educators would argue that it’s up to teachers to build that respect. Realize that schools are like battleships – they take a lot of effort to turn and they make big waves. Changing the culture of a disrespectful school will take time, a great deal of effort, and a captain (a principal) with a firm hand on the wheel. If a strong captain is in place, a sure course is set, and all of the crew members are receptive to orders, then sure, school culture can change. But if you’re already considering changing careers, you’re probably better off seeking a different teaching environment. Trust me – those respectful communities are out there. Ask around.
Advancement and Recognition
Finally, some new teachers become discouraged when they are excluded from recognition and quick advancement opportunities. Realize that as a teacher, you will be on the same organizational chart position as every other teacher in the school. Sure, some teachers are named grade-level leader or department chair, but that usually means a small stipend and a lot more work. In most cases, there is simply no promotion through the teacher ranks. Teachers don’t have supervisory duties over other teachers. If you want to be the boss, you need to go into administration – a task that holds little interest for most teachers.
Along the same line, don’t expect to earn a Teacher of the Year nomination during your first year, or even your fifth year. Many fine teachers teach 20 or more years before that recognition comes. If you need awards and accolades to be happy with a career, then teaching may not be the best fit for you.
Does that mean you’ll never get the recognition you deserve? Of course not. It just manifests in different ways – when a student says they can’t believe how much they learned this year; when a parent stops you in the grocery store and thanks you for being such a great teacher; when you receive an e-mail from a former student whose life you changed for the better. There’s no plaque for that; no elevation in pay grade or year-end bonus. But those are our rewards.
If you’ve read this blog post and you’ve decided to steer your career goals away from the teaching profession, that’s okay. Or maybe this dose of reality has helped you refocus your attention toward a career in teaching. Recall that it wasn’t my goal to convince you one way or the other.
Just remember – teaching is a career, not just a job. Every career has a downside. (If you don’t believe me, ask an attorney, a sales manager, a physician, an architect, etc.) Teachers invest in college preparation and develop the teaching craft over the course of many years. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Just realize the benefits and pitfalls of teaching so that you can run strong and win the race.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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