We’ve all heard it. Any time anybody complains about teacher pay, half a dozen teachers roll their eyes and say, “Well, I’m not in it for a big paycheck. What matters to me is …” The way their eyes light up when they finally understand fractions. The ones who come back years later and thank me for that letter I wrote. The hugs when my kindergarteners haven’t seen me over a long weekend. The chance to help mold and inspire future leaders. The emails I get from kids who still remember that economics project.
And don’t get me wrong. That stuff is great. But when you say, “I’m not a teacher because of the money,” you imply that maybe the rest of us are mercenaries who became educators for the fat paycheck and the glamor of it all.
And I don’t know; maybe there are some people who went into teaching because they thought it would be an easy way to earn a decent living with an awesome schedule and summers off. After all, half of the teachers in my state quit within the first five years, so I assume it didn’t live up to their expectations in some way. But most of us became teachers because we love teaching. Because we feel called to teach and, at least in my case, can’t imagine any other job bringing us the joy we find in the classroom. No teacher who is “in it for the money” would stick around more than a year, unless he or she was utterly unqualified to do anything else.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Due to low pay, lack of respect, and unreasonable demands, there are extreme teacher shortages in a lot of places. Which means that you can practically walk in off the street and get yourself hired as the math teacher, regardless of your ability to either do or teach math. Teaching can be a “last resort” profession because, even if nobody else will hire you, a school will probably take you out of desperation. And every time a veteran teacher says, “I’m not in it for the money,” they’re buying into a system that accepts subpar teachers by offering subpar pay.
Before you bring up the New York pay scale, I’ll freely admit that in a lot of places, teachers get a decent salary. If you teach somewhere that you’re compensated fairly for what you do, great! If you do a lot of work outside school—and don’t we all—but the job satisfaction makes up for it, awesome! But that’s not the case for all teachers.
My school district just gave out raises…for the first time in close to a decade. For a while, I got paid less for every year of experience I gained. I’m lucky; my husband has a job that pays well, so I was able to avoid getting a second job while raising an infant. But not everybody has that luxury, and they shouldn’t have to. Teaching is a career. Not a hobby. Not volunteer work. Not a missionary post. It is a career, for which we’ve trained and for which we should expect a living wage. The fact is, there are places where good teachers cannot afford to be teachers because it won’t pay the rent. And that’s a tragedy, because those are usually the places where kids are most desperately in need of good teachers.
There’s always going to be a politician saying that bad teachers are the problem. We’re always going to run into that guy at the party who says, “I wish I got paid to sit around for three months in the summer!” and then chuckles obnoxiously. And there are always going to be the armchair generals who stink up the comments section with, “If teaching is so bad, why don’t you find a different job? I wouldn’t want somebody who’s only in it for the money teaching my kid!”
We can’t avoid those people. But it’d be nice if we stopped being our own worst enemy. I could do without the friendly fire. You don’t care about the money? That’s great. Maybe you’re married to somebody who’s bringing in the big bucks. Maybe you live somewhere with affordable housing. Maybe you don’t have kids in daycare. Either way, it’s great that you can make it work on a small salary, and I’m being sincere about that.
But don’t look down on those who can’t. Don’t be complicit in a system that loses good teachers because they can’t afford to do their job anymore. Most teachers love teaching…but we also love being able to buy groceries and keep the lights on. Teaching is an incredibly important job; let’s insist that our leaders treat it that way, rather than enjoy our martyrdom when they don’t.