To attract and retain exceptional teachers, we as a nation must put our money and resources where our values are—or where they should be.
April 30, 2021
Almost overnight, as COVID-19 spurred school closures in March 2020, the national narrative portrayed classroom teachers as heralded heroes of the pandemic. News stories chronicled compassionate and creative teachers’ efforts, such as driving to students’ homes to teach them from their driveways and creating innovative Zoom lessons. One of my student’s parents texted me, “I have NO idea how you do this, but thank you for all of your hard work to teach my baby.”
However, as the focus shifted to the question of whether to reopen school buildings in the fall, this widespread admiration of teachers morphed into criticism and verbal attacks. Teachers were widely denigrated as selfish for being fearful of returning to school buildings without sufficient safety protocols and staff vaccinations, and many educators felt compelled to leave the profession, or to consider doing so, because of limited support and the financial pressures. One survey reported that 28% of teachers said they’re more likely to leave the profession because of the pandemic--and rates were even higher among more-experienced educators.
Although the challenges of teaching in a pandemic play a role in the current teacher retention crisis, there were cracks in our nation’s teacher profession long before COVID-19. Teacher compensation and retention have been documented challenges in the United States for years. The average U.S. classroom teacher’s inflation-adjusted salary decreased by an estimated 1.7% from 2010-11 to 2019-20.
Underfunded schools and paltry teacher pay are significant challenges in retaining educators. Many teachers pay for classroom essentials out of their pockets, which already are often thin. In my eight years as a traditional public elementary school teacher, I spent about $7,500 on my students, classroom, and educational materials. If you divide that by my time in the classroom, that’s roughly $937 each year to buy culturally responsive books, classroom incentives and supplies, snacks for hungry students, and to pay for professional development that my school could not afford to cover—a significant amount of my disposable income.
We can’t claim to “love” our teachers when we refuse to update teacher pay and school funding structures—structures that force many teachers to take on second and, sometimes, even third jobs to cover their bills and provide for their families. As the 2019 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year, I met other esteemed educators from across the nation. A common, and unfortunate, recurring theme that emerged from our conversations was how dire the teacher pay and teacher conditions were in so many places across the country and the globe. I heard stories of teachers’ additional jobs such as driving for Uber and working as a server at the local pizza restaurant.
“We can’t claim to 'love' our teachers when we refuse to update teacher pay and school funding structures.”
A few years ago, Time magazine ran a compelling series called “Teaching In America,” which highlighted real, gripping stories of educators. It told of the grim realities of far too many educators who had to choose between covering basic necessities for their households and the essentials to be excellent teachers. The combination of high levels of teacher stress and burnout with the low compensation in comparison to similarly educated peers is contributing to the current teacher retention crisis.
We have to put our money and resources where our values are. If we want to attract and retain exceptional teacher candidates of diverse backgrounds, it is critical to create a sustainable, attractive, and appropriate environment. There are several ways to help demonstrate meaningful respect for our nation’s teachers, but one stands out as a top priority: Teacher compensation needs an overhaul.
I was appalled to learn that one of my colleagues from another southwestern state, who had taught science for more than 30 years, was only making about $48,000. This is after earning a master’s degree as well as having an extensive and notable career. The cost of living has gone up everywhere, but teacher pay has remained stagnant or decreased (adjusted for inflation). In comparison, if my colleague had chosen to become an engineer and had the same postsecondary education and level of certifications, she would be paid, on the low end, close to $100,000 at the same point in her career.
The nation’s public schools also have a shortage of teachers for special education teachers and courses in science, technology, engineering, and math.. It’s easy to see why so many college graduates are opting out of becoming a teacher: A math major graduating from college would earn a starting salary of $35,000 as a teacher. They would earn much more, a starting salary of $60,000 if they worked for an engineering firm instead.
If we as a nation truly value our most precious resource—our children—improving teacher compensation and retention is a nonnegotiable. The pandemic and its aftermath have only heightened and illuminated the invaluable role that teachers play in our schools and society. It’s time that we pay teachers as professionals and what they are worth. From the pandemic to the nation’s racial reckoning and protests for social justice, it is clear that our national educational landscape is changing. Teachers do not go into the profession to become wealthy, but that doesn’t mean that they want to barely scrape by financially in order to do the work that they love.
Kelly Harper (Houston ‘12) is a manager of external affairs at Marietta City Schools, the 2019 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year, and a 2019 National Teacher of the Year finalist. She is passionate about eradicating generational poverty and educational inequity.
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