Home > Essays > Boosting Teachers Wages to Six Figures Makes an Eye-Catching Headline… But Doing So Would Show that Working Conditions Matter Even More

Boosting Teachers Wages to Six Figures Makes an Eye-Catching Headline… But Doing So Would Show that Working Conditions Matter Even More

May 29, 2021

The eye-catching headline in yesterday’s NYTimes op ed piece by Colette Coleman read “In a Post-Covid World, Let’s Pay Teachers Six Figures“… and Ms. Coleman does an admirable job of making the case for such a pay boost. Using then Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ pledge to boost every teachers’ salary by $13,500 at a Texas Southern campaign rally as a springboard, Ms. Coleman makes a reasonably compelling case for an even MORE substantial pay increase. But Ms. Coleman is well aware of the reality that money alone will not matter:

…My dissatisfaction and that of many other former teachers extended beyond compensation. Attracting and retaining highly qualified educators will also require, for instance, improvements in working conditions. Meaningful raises are a strong start, though…

In my 29 years as a school superintendent, I worked in districts that paid teachers in the lower quartile, districts that paid teachers in the upper quartile, and concluded my career in an interstate district comprised of two districts that were among the highest in the state. Here’s what I learned from that experience:

  • Some teachers, including some of the very best I witnessed, were place bound. In some cases they worked in towns they grew up in and in others they worked in communities who valued them. These teachers were not motivated by compensation and they had no thought of leaving for more pay under any circumstances. Their soul-level connection with their schools was not for sale.
  • I can think of only a handful of teachers who left a tenured position based solely on salary.
  • I can attest to the fact that scores of teachers sought jobs in “prestige” districts with high base pay based on their sense of community support for schools in those districts, their desire to teach high-performing students, and, most importantly, their desire to work with a faculty who values continuous improvement.
  • I can also attest to the fact that districts with limited resources cannot contemplate offering professional development opportunities or a wide array of clubs or elective opportunities when they are putting their budgets together. This lack of resources leads to a vicious circle of teacher discouragement. When budgets are fought over year-after-year teachers are constantly fearful that their jobs are in jeopardy, their poor working environment will be even worse in the future, and any thoughts of professional growth funded by the local district are impossible to conceive. This was driven home to me when I left a relatively affluent New England community for a middle-tier district in Maryland. In the affluent community that had 3600 students sabbatical leaves were part of the community culture and, therefore, multiple sabbatical leaves were part of the collective bargaining agreement and built into the budget. They were, in effect, a “given”. By the end of their teaching careers virtually any teacher in that district who sought a sabbatical had received one. The district in Maryland serving 19,000 students, on the other hand, had language for a single sabbatical that would be issued in accordance with a procedure devised by the board— a procedure that was opaque and complicated. Many teachers in that district retired without ever crossing paths with ANYONE who had received a sabbatical. It is no surprise that the ethos of professional development was different in those two districts and the conversations in faculty rooms was also different.

The things that teachers value more than wages often cannot be bought and are often not even brought to the forefront in conversations about teaching as a profession. But here’s a way Kamala Harris and Joe Biden could leverage tremendous change in the working conditions for teachers: instead of providing $13,500 per year in wages for teachers, provide each district with $1,000 per staff member for professional development and invite the school board, teachers representatives, and administrators determine how to use those funds to support improved instruction in the classroom. It’s a cheaper solution than increasing wages but I believe it will leverage more change than an across the board raise…. and it will compel boards, teachers, and administrators to focus on a positive topic. That is unless the teachers believe that seminars on Critical Race Theory would benefit them the most.

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