San Francisco had its first day of school this month, and Kory O’Rourke, a San Francisco teacher, is still driving Lyft to make ends meet. O’Rourke loves her job as a teacher and says she lives “in fear that the bills won’t get paid.” Her story is not unusual, and teachers who don’t drive Lyft often take on other jobs, such as housekeeping, bartending and tutoring. This is happening at a time when San Francisco is scrambling to find classroom teachers, and teacher-training programs in California have declining enrollment.
In the last salary negotiations, the district offered very little and the union asked for only a bit more. The problem is, we’re thinking about this in the wrong way. As a society, we are stingy with our teachers. What might happen if, instead of paying teachers barely enough, we paid them what we believe our students are worth?
For starters, if teacher pay had kept pace with per pupil classroom spending, average pay in our country would be $120,000.
Imagine who might choose the profession, knowing that it came with a path of financial viability. Imagine college students staying up at night worrying whether they are good enough to teach the same way they worry about getting accepted to law school or medical school.
There is a lot we need to reform in schools, but until we stop skirting around the fact that the vow-of-poverty model deters young people from the classroom and drains those that are there, nothing else will matter. We can forget filling classrooms with well-trained teachers. Forget recruiting bilingual special needs, science and math teachers. Forget recruiting people of color or men. And, worst of all, forget about fighting poverty or being relevant in the international knowledge-based economy.
One refrain I hear from people (and even teachers themselves) over and over is that they don’t work for the money. The people who teach do so because “they love it.” And it’s true: It was why I went into teaching. At the start, the low pay felt like a badge of honor to my colleagues and me. Today, I think the model of underpaying teachers has run its course and I believe this badge of sacrifice is a rotten model on which to sustain a democracy.
So to be clear, I’m not suggesting we pay more for the same labor force with the same results. I’m talking about a world where good and great teachers have more good colleagues, where, because we have an army of talented educators, they enjoy professional norms, prestige, autonomy and trust.
I’m talking about a world where we act like education really is a cornerstone of democracy, and where we see teachers as the solution.
What might happen if we started paying for the work to do that? We know:
•Teachers want to give their all, but being financially stressed and moonlighting does not allow them to teach their best.
•A teacher’s working conditions are the same as the students’ learning conditions.
•The costs of not professionalizing this job will far outweigh the expenses of a fair wage.
Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, 100 percent of the housing is unaffordable on a teacher’s salary, and low salaries are not making the profession sustainable or attractive to students contemplating the field. The highest salary a San Francisco teacher can earn is $86K. Can we find ways to remake the profession into something committed college graduates can’t resist?