Are Teachers Overpaid?

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Before I launch into the actual posting for this week, I have to note a significant milestone for the blog. WordPress informs me that this is our one hundredth posting. When we began way back in November 2019, no one could have imagined what awaited us – the turbulent presidential election, the insurrection and, above all, the pandemic, which continues to affect so much of the way we conduct our lives. Of course, there are many pleasures small or large that we’ve all experienced in these two years as well. One of my earliest postings was about the macro vs. micro dimensions of our lives. On the macro level, there was turmoil and danger, but for many of us things were, to our sometime embarrassment, good on the micro level. That will surely be the case going forward as well and I will continue to try to represent both dimensions in my postings – the garden, my granddaughter and my reading on the one side and the terrifying threats to our democracy, the growing racism and the too-slow- to-change education system on the other.

Thank you for sticking with me, even occasionally. I’d love to hear more from you.

One positive effect of the last pandemic year was a growing appreciation of how difficult teaching is and how hard teachers have to work to keep their students moving forward academically. Many a parent fell in battle trying to replicate that work at home, especially in the months immediately after March 2020 when schools were still reeling from the abrupt shift to remote learning and parents were called on to fill some of the gaping holes in the system. The recognition that teaching was no walk in the park elevated the status of teachers and the respect they received from the general public, at least temporarily.

Still, there’s always been a hard core of sceptics and critics who refuse to recognize teaching as a profession. In their view it’s a boondoggle, unduly rewarded with high salaries and long and undeserved vacations and breaks. My ongoing dumpster dive into my files unearthed an exchange with an old nemesis from my teaching years in New Hampshire. The local paper, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, an admirably liberal and enlightened publication, always reserves a large block of space for letters from readers. In addition to the citizens who are moved to write about a specific grievance or cause, never to be heard from again, there were others who took advantage of this free soapbox to launch regular attacks on their favorite targets.

Enter Mr. Louis Z. whose mission was to expose all the shortcomings of the local school district, especially its ever-increasing budget. Since at least 80% of that budget is devoted to teacher salaries, they became Mr. Z’s primary target.  I’d like to reproduce here a particularly striking example of the statistical sophistry he used to “prove” his point that teachers are overpaid.

“I am intimately acquainted with a young physician,” whose impressive academic and professional credentials he proceeds to spell out. “This physician is earning $100,000/year. (Note that all the numbers in my piece need to be adjusted for several decades of inflation.) Let us see what these earnings are:

Weekly: 4 days beginning with rounds at 7AM and ending with rounds about 7PM, including office hours, clinics, O.R. time= 48 hours +2 overnight coverages weekly=24 hours. Total weekly hours =72.”

Mr. Z continues in this vein to conclude that his doctor works a total of 3,948 hours in his 11-month year for an average of $25.32/hour.

The calculations for a teacher with ten years’ experience and a master’s degree are simpler. He or she would earn $39,211/year for a 180 seven-hour days. Dividing this salary by a total 1,274 hours, he arrives at an hourly compensation of $30.77.

Whoa, Mr. Z! Where do we even start to dismantle this argument, which is based on complete ignorance of the life of a teacher? No more teacher work after 3PM every day or after June 15. Really? And did anyone notice that behind his numbers lay the reality that the teacher was earning just 40% of the doctor’s annual salary?

In any case, here’s the letter I wrote to the paper in response from Houston where we were then living:

“It is late Sunday afternoon. I am taking a break from six hours of paper grading and preparation of materials for next week’s classes…. This weekend routine is typical. I can’t remember a Sunday in my teaching career that wasn’t spent on schoolwork. I can count on the fingers of my hands the number of weekday evenings that don’t include at least three hours of school related work.

During my six years as teaching principal in Bennington, NH, my teachers spent endless hours beyond the normal school day grading papers, preparing materials, calling parents, rehearsing plays, coaching sports, raising funds and a myriad of other activities that go with the teaching territory. This is the norm everywhere I have taught. Yet Mr. Z chooses to calculate teachers’ work hours as if they were filing clerks who punch out at the end of the day and never look back…. If he had taken the trouble to interview one of us, as he did his doctor friend, he would have received an education in the true shape of a teacher’s life.

I have no quarrel with doctors. It is Mr. Z with whom I take issue because his undeserved animosity toward teachers makes an already difficult job even more so. I invite him to follow us around for a week and discover the emptiness of his numbers game.

And now, back to my paper grading pile.”

I’m mining the same territory here that was addressed some years ago in a book called, with tongue in cheek, Teachers Have It Easy, edited by a group that includes the novelist Dave Eggers. They interviewed dozens of teachers at various stages in their teaching careers and discovered a number who were working two and three jobs to make ends meet. Many were being forced out of the profession they loved because they were finding it difficult to support their families.

 I was always amused by the recent graduates of the teacher education program I helped found who were ecstatic to be receiving paychecks that added up to $50,000/year minus deductions and taxes after years of eating Ramen and guarding their pennies. They were still single and childless, but a little farther down the road those paychecks weren’t going to look so fat. Teachers don’t have to take a vow of poverty to pursue this profession, but they should at least expect an income that makes possible a modestly comfortable life, no longer reliant on cinder block bookshelves to contain their libraries.

In the promotional material for Teachers Have It Easy, I found a quote by my friend Bill Ayers which feels like the right coda for this piece.

“We will have achieved a kind of Golden Age – enlightened, hopeful and advanced – when teaching is treated as the pre-eminent transcendent enterprise it really is, and children are recognized as the foremost members of society.”

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Marv Hoffman

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