We can continue to train great teachers on a two to three year cycle and call it good enough; but let us be honest, keeping strong teachers in the classroom is vital to transforming education and salary matters for retaining top talent.
After graduating with a JD from Notre Dame Law School—where the average graduate was earning $120K a year starting salary in private practice—and practicing law for a short time, I made the decision to join Teach for America. It was an easy decision for me professionally because I felt called to teach; but with a wife and one year old baby to support, I was asking my family to give up a lot.
My family would have just over $3,000 for expenses—including food, diapers and clothing—or roughly $9 a day after accounting for taxes, retirement that was automatically paid into a public retirement system that I do not plan on ever seeing, rent for a modest two bedroom condo, car insurance, gas and health insurance. We were able to save money by going with catastrophic health insurance instead of the insurance provided by my school, but the bottom line was still negative after accounting for visits to the doctor and car repairs.
Could I have found a way to make teaching financially sustainable? Of course, many do. I grew up in a single parent household with a mom who was a substitute teacher and later an elementary school teacher. I survived, but life was not always easy financially. I have so much respect for teachers who are making the sacrifice for our students!
This does not mean that a first year teacher cannot make a difference; I demonstrated in my own classroom that even a first and second year teacher can make a huge impact. I taught in a school that was going to be closed for low performance; and by my second year, I helped lead my school to the highest high school math growth in the State of Colorado. But there is no doubt that I would have been even better had I kept teaching and that keeping the best teachers in the classroom longer can have an exponential effect on student performance and outcomes. A former student recently asked me: “When are you going to teach again? Everyone still talks about what we learned in your class.”
How do you keep good teachers in the classroom? I do not know the answer. I do know that a third year teacher is better than a second year teacher and a fifth year teaching is better than a third year teacher. I also know that a barrier to many professionals staying in the classroom is financial sustainability. Good teachers should not have to choose between starting a family and teaching or taking a second job to cover expenses.
I often hear, “you do not go into teaching for the money.” True. But are you taking a vow of poverty? If we are going to create true reform in our education system, we need to end the rhetoric on teacher sustainability and actually make it happen.