Frances Johnson ’23
Public School Teachers Are Egregiously Underpaid
I grew up in the quiet suburbs of a town called Delmar, outside of Albany, where both my parents worked as public-school teachers. The routine for them was carefully crafted to oversee that me and my two sisters were up in the mornings, dressed, fed, and brought to school by 7:30 in order for them both to make it to work by 7:45. I never thought about the stress they were under each morning– relying on us to be on time so that they could keep their jobs. From my narrow and naive perspective, I was convinced that teaching was a simple job; something that made my parents happy– gave them purpose. However, over the years, I would ask myself: Why does mom need to leave home to do more teacher training? When am I supposed to see mom, when she has to work a part-time job once I’m finally home from school? I began understanding the sad truth that my parents were not nearly being financially compensated enough for the time they put into their profession.
For some reason, I believed that the struggles my family faced due to the teaching profession were exclusive to us. However, the unionization of teachers across the U.S. goes to show that the overworking, undermining, and underpaying of public-school teachers is a nationwide issue. Teachers brings immersive and efficient learning experiences to their students and are expected to cater to their individual needs. With elementary school teachers specifically, there is also a responsibility for their well-being.
Amy Pierson, Wyoming’s Teacher of the Year in 2016, says, “Demands are placed on teachers to help students solve problems with peers that occur in the classroom and at recess. [They] help students find a coat, because it is 0 degrees, and they didn’t come to school in a coat. Listen as students recount their night when Dad didn’t come home. Feed them when they are hungry” (Perna 78-83). Pierson had been teaching elementary school for 17 years and has yet to slow down, as she is in the process of getting a doctorate degree. The power to impact children through patience and empathy is a gift that not all adults possess. To be a teacher, you ideally have a passion. I know this because I have heard countless stories from my father, who works at three separate public schools in Albany. He recounts stories of students who hadn’t had dinner the night before or breakfast that morning. He has taken initiative many times to break up fights, which inevitably ensue. He has given students the lunch money that they don’t have.
“There’s a lot of pressure to compensate for what’s lacking at home,” he says. I wasn’t aware of the lengths my parents were going to each day to simply do their job. To support vulnerable children and cynical teenagers is a complex task.
Although the teaching crisis was relevant well before the pandemic, far greater issues arose in attempts to continue education after Covid-19 hit. In response to an essay written by Dr. Joseph G. Allen titled “Do Not Close Schools Again,” Nancy Lehman Bronx of the New York Times writes, “Since one of the most effective mitigation strategies to date is masking, I was therefore surprised by Dr. Allen’s recommendation of voluntary masking in schools.” (Lehman Bronx 23-24). I was personally appalled at the suggestion, especially made from a doctor. First-handedly, I had experienced the ongoing battle my mother faced throughout the pandemic to be heard on issues relating to Covid; while elementary-aged students restlessly played with their masks, put their hands in their mouth, picked their nose, touched their face, etc. “There are no Covid regulations or attempts to protect the health and safety of teachers who put in the heavy work everyday,” says my mother, who teaches a combined class of first and second-graders at her school. I’d quarantined alongside my mother as she inevitably contracted Covid, as well as other sicknesses she’d contracted from the classroom. She would struggle to find a substitute, as there were rarely any available, and she endured emotional abuse at the hands of unempathetic higher-ups who weren’t experiencing first-hand the disarray of a newly-integrated classroom after virtual learning. The pandemic evidently took a toll not only on my mother’s career, but also on teachers everywhere. According to establishment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the beginning of the pandemic, state and local public education employment fell by nearly 5% overall, and much more in some states. Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss, researchers with the Economic Policy Institute, recently conducted a report: “Nearly one in five public schools reported having difficulty filling teacher vacancies a decade before COVID, and the problem only got worse in the intervening years” (Cooper/Hickey). If teachers were struggling before, how were they possibly supposed to get by after a sudden global epidemic?
Another problem with the modern-day education system is the chain of command. I was told countless stories of interactions my mother had with her superiors. How is it fair that a principal uses funds to buy a towering pedestal of a desk to intimidate teachers who aren’t approved of funds for basic things such as a whiteboard and journals? Not to mention the expectations for teachers to buy most supplies out of their own pockets… That’s kind of ironic, given the complete lack of regard for which inflation, cost of living, and other factors have on already low wages for school teachers. My mother also informed me of negotiations for a contract in place which would require the teachers to stay longer hours, but of course without the compromise of a raise. Though unions protect teachers from being fired unfairly, that does not stop the people in power from abusing it. My mother also has experienced isolation and unprofessional behavior from her principal after questioning his tactics, including disconnecting her from parents of the students, excluding her from meetings, and other wildly unethical responses to a teacher who is trying to make a positive difference in the classroom.
Though most would agree about the inequity within the education system, some still do believe that teachers are paid well– even overpaid. NCES, School Reform concluded, “…when computed in 2012-2013 school year dollars, the average public school teacher’s salary in the 1982-1983 school year was $48,781, whereas in the 2012-2013 school year it had risen to $56,383. Whether or not this increase of just over 15 percent is adequate is in dispute, with some claiming that teachers are underpaid but others saying that with their whole benefits package teachers are overpaid” (Merino).
While one would assume that a raise in average salary is beneficial, it does not account for the many factors that determine a teacher’s salary. Certain factors such as marital status, medical issues, and age are all subject to change. It is also important to make note of the fact that salary increases the longer they work at a certain school. While some argue that it motivates stability and ensures credibility before compensation, it is a financial trap for teachers that seek a new location or area of study, as the beginning salary is barely livable. This allows teachers to be taken advantage of by higher-ups who know they need the money.
And, attraction to this occupation, which is so important for future generations—a profession which goes back for centuries—is dwindling. This isn’t a problem without a solution, however. Federal Covid Relief Funds need to be reallocated to compensate for the hard work put in by teachers before and after the pandemic, as there are hundreds of billions of dollars to account for. Policymakers need to reflect on what is important for the future of our country. The effects of the modern education system reveal that the current standards set are not working in tandem with teachers. I watched my mother and father lose their passions for the careers they put thousands of dollars and years of their lives into– a career which used to inspire all of their students, colleagues, and themselves. But now, teachers across the U.S. are growing more and more impatient. “There have been a number of polls suggesting that many teachers are at their breaking point and are planning to leave the profession. It is heartbreaking,” says Amy Pierson.
Though it is saddening to see the loss of grit from my parents, it’s comforting to know that their experiences are shared by many– but what will come of it? Are we supposed to abandon our future generations? Manipulating teachers who are already stretched thin, a principal might say, “They need you now more than ever.” That principal would be right. However, it should not be at the expense of the livelihoods of teachers who are actively making the changes they can everyday, with the little power that they have.
Teachers are potters molding clay, the impressionable mind of a child. If we cannot provide teachers with necessary resources, it only hurts their students’. If we cannot allow them the freedom to feel at ease in the classroom, that intrinsic happy feeling is lost. That feeling that drives the connection of ideas and emotional engagement with all the possibilities of learning. As Amy Pierson puts it, “Students are who bring me joy. It is their ability to grow and learn on a daily basis that inspires me to continue to do what I do. Watching them try and fail and then succeed is a gift that I get to witness every day.” This is a precious gift which cannot be lost.
“Introduction to School Reform: Opposing Viewpoints.” School Reform, edited by Noël Merino, Greenhaven Press, 2015. Opposing Viewpoints. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010692133/OVIC?u=purchase&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=d09ea1c5. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
Richwine, Jason, et al. “The compensation question: are public school teachers underpaid?” Education Next, vol. 12, no. 4, fall 2012, pp. 68+. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A303757989/OVIC?u=purchase&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=1db810e8. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
“The Challenges of Keeping Schools Open.” New York Times, 3 Jan. 2022, p. A16(L). Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A688490927/OVIC?u=purchase&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=5c32ef85. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
Perna, Mark C. “The Life of a Teacher and Why It’s Beyond Hard.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcperna/2022/03/28/the-life-of-a-teacher-and-why-its-beyond-hard /?sh=9128b7601628. 3, Press Releases • February.
“Raising Pay in Public K–12 Schools Is Critical to Solving Staffing Shortages.” Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/press/raising-pay-in-public-k-12-schools-is-critical-to-solving-staffing-shortages/ . “
Julie Roneson Middle School English, Bridgeport, Conn.” New York Times, 17 May 2020, p. 16(L). Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A624108534/OVIC?u=purchase&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=1c120b51. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.