Will the Real Ms. Smith Please Stand Up?

Last week, I wrote a post with the intent of putting into perspective just how little we pay our teachers in Oklahoma. A single parent with two kids on step 9 (in his/her 10th year of teaching) would qualify for government assistance like WIC, Soonercare, and a childcare subsidy from DHS. Keep in mind, this is a person with a college degree—somebody we refer to as a “professional”. How can we justify paying the college-educated people who teach our children so little they need government subsidies to make ends meet?

Some will do so by pulling out the old rhetoric that “teachers only work nine months out of the year”. Those of us who know a teacher know this just isn’t true. We teach students only nine months out of the year. But in our summers and on our breaks we are often pursuing professional development, if not because it is mandatory for our position, then because we choose to in order to be more effective in reaching your children. We will spend countless hours in our rooms, attending meetings with our administrators, or planning for the upcoming year with our teams.   Some of us pick up courses towards our master’s so we can provide principals for your child’s school. Some of us work summer jobs so we can afford to teach another year. Needless to say, this excuse is false and tired, and we educators are fed up with the misconception.

Others will justify low teacher pay by resorting to the guilt-trip. “Teachers aren’t in it for the money,” they say. They’re right. We aren’t. We’re in it because we like the subject area in which we teach, and we love people. Other professions can say this as well. Most doctors go into medicine because they love people and want to help them. We still manage to eventually give them a salary that allows them to pay off their student loans and send their own children to college. Yes, teachers are called to the profession. But we didn’t take a vow of poverty.

In last week’s post, I laid out a sample budget for our fictional teacher. Ms. Smith was able to make ends meet using government assistance, but there were several caveats. She relied on the help of friends and neighbors for childcare. Her car was paid off. She wasn’t paying down student loans or credit card debt. She stretched her budget being frugal and thrifty. Even so, she was one ambulance ride or “the-car-broke-down” away from financial disaster.

While my Ms. Smith was fictional, the bad news is there are real, live Ms. Smith’s all over Oklahoma. Check out a few of the comments the post elicited last week:

“This is not fictional. I am Ms. Smith. This is my life for the last eight years as a divorced teacher with three kids. Thank God I’ve always had enough, never missed a bill or payment, but I don’t have any retirement savings besides teacher retirement and I drive a 15 year old car. I am actively looking for a job in another field even though all I ever wanted to do was be a teacher. It’s sad how many people I know are planning on leaving the profession, too.”

“That hits a little too close to home.”

“I lived this life for about 15 years. Thank goodness we didn’t have any emergencies and that my parents stepped in when there was a need.”

“When I was a single person with no children, I couldn’t do it. Sure, I had no child-related costs, but what I did have was a fat student-loan payment, to the tune of $700 PER MONTH.”

“This is my tenth year of teaching, and my gross is $200 less than the figure in this post. It’s a tragedy that society devalues such a noble profession. And, sure, teachers are “in it for the outcome, not the income”, but we are ultimately hurting our children.”

“I am living that very situation, only I don’t make $35,000 a year & have 3 kids without child support. 2 are in high school & the youngest in middle school. I SCRAPE by each month & don’t have a car payment, however my car broke down this week & I don’t have savings. So I understand her situation.”

If that’s not enough to convince you we have a serious problem with teacher compensation, check out these comments from pre-service teachers (emphasis my own):

“I would love to give back to the community that put me in the path that I am to be a teacher. I would love to make a difference in the lives of Oklahoma children as my teachers did for me. But what about my own future children/family?”

“When I graduate college, with a degree in education, I’m moving if it doesn’t change. You can barely raise a family on that pay. The really sad thing is, that most people in school to become teachers are planning on leaving the state after graduation.”

Over 1000 teaching positions went unfilled or had to be filled with emergency certificates. Future educators in our college programs are already planning to cross the state line once they graduate. Those states don’t even have to recruit. They know our poor teacher pay is doing all the work of recruitment for them.

It’s time to read the writing on the wall.  This teacher shortage is a crisis. If you think it isn’t closely linked to money, I have an invisible unicorn I’d love to sell you.


Ms. Smith Makes Ends Meet…for now…

Ms. Smith is a fictional teacher in my district. She’s a single mom with two kids, ages 3 and 6. If Ms. Smith were real (as very well she could be), her base salary would be $35,063.85/year before taxes. Here’s a look at what Ms. Smith’s monthly budget might entail:

Gross Income: 2921.99 2921.99
   – taxes 551.43
Net Income: 2370.56
Mortgage 533.84 1836.72
Utilities (water, electric, gas, city) 200 1636.72
Car Insurance 60 1576.72
Dental/vision Insurance 41.5 1535.22
Medical expenses 50 1485.22
Auto Expenses (gas, services, tune-ups, tires) 160 1325.22
Groceries (consumable) 300 1025.22
Clothing 120 905.22
Daycare 317 588.22
cell phone 90 498.22
household upkeep/repairs 50 448.22
short-term savings 200 248.22
long-term savings/investments 248.22
recreation (kids’ activities, social outings, 100 148.22
gifts/donations 50 98.22
miscellaneous 50 48.22

The first few categories are fixed expenses. She was able to scrape up a few thousand dollars for a down payment on a house in the district where she works. A mortgage on a $120K house is much less expensive than rent for a three-bedroom apartment. Gas, water, electric, cable, internet, and city bills average at least $200/month. Liability only car insurance costs Ms. Smith $60 each month. Her teacher compensation affords her the cost of medical insurance, but deductions are made from her paycheck each month for dental and vision coverage.

The good news is her oldest child is in first grade this year. The stay-at-home mom next door watches the child after school until Ms. Smith arrives home from work. If this were not the case, Ms. Smith would have to pay for before and after school care for her school-age child so she could fulfill her contract day. As it were, there’s only one daycare bill this year, and the good news is…Ms. Smith qualifies for a childcare subsidy from the state of Oklahoma.   She pays the first $263 of her younger child’s daycare bill, and the state picks up the rest of the tab. Of course, only certain facilities accept this subsidy, so Ms. Smith has to drive her child across the town even though there are four daycare establishments on her way to work.

Ms. Smith is frugal and thrifty. Her salary and household size qualify her children for WIC. She clips coupons and shops sales to fill in the gaps in the grocery trips, and to provide household items like cleaning products, toiletries, and paper goods. Thank goodness her youngest is out of diapers! With only $120/month budgeted for clothing and shoes for the whole family, Ms. Smith frequents the thrift stores and consignment sales.

Her children qualify for Soonercare. Thank goodness. It would cost her an additional $376/month to insure her children through her employer (not including dental or vision). But she still has to set aside a little every month to cover her own medical expenses including deductibles, copays for annual visits, and prescriptions. Ms. Smith knows she’s one ambulance ride or emergency room visit away from going into debt.

With only $50/month budgeted for gifts, her children turn down many birthday party invitations. Ms. Smith has a good eye at thrift stores and garage sales. There are always gifts under the tree at Christmas, but her oldest child is starting to notice that things never come in boxes, and sometimes they look like they’ve been played with already.

$100/month may seem like a lot to budget for recreation. She had to say no when her oldest wanted piano lessons ($20/week). But she found a dance class at her local YMCA for only $45/month (plus uniform, recital, and costume fee, of course). Her children look forward to Mondays when Ms. Smith takes advantage of a discount for teachers that allows her to bring home a $5 pizza, plus a movie from the Redbox! Once a month, she can afford a babysitter for a night out. Of course, there’s little left for dinner, drinks, or movies, but there are lots of inexpensive and even free activities in the community!

You might be wondering for what purpose a “miscellaneous” category serves. From what category should she budget for school pictures? Or for the boyscout popcorn she bought from a student? Or for the PTA membership at her child’s school?

Perhaps you’ve noticed a few categories are missing. I didn’t include any payments to debt service. Imagine if this working professional had student loans or credit cards to pay off. I didn’t include a car payment. The category for automotive expenses barely covers filling up a 14-gallon tank once a week at $2.00/gallon, and saving a little each month for oil changes and regular tune-ups. What will she do when we she needs new tires ($700-$900)? Or eventually…a new vehicle? She’s not investing in retirement or college funds. Her teacher retirement (when age plus years of service equals 90) will equal only 60% of the average of her top 3 earning years.

What’s really keeping Ms. Smith up at night is wondering how she will make ends meet next year. Next year, her salary will increase by $228.06. That’s for the year. Her gross monthly income will increase by $19. But that abysmal raise will be enough to make her ineligible for WIC and the childcare subsidy. With her youngest still two years away from a full school day, her daycare bill will rise by almost $400 next year.   Her grocery and consumables budget will have to increase to make up for the milk, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and proteins she can no longer acquire through WIC.

If she chose to go back to school for a master’s degree, this could increase her salary by about $1200/year ($100/month). How many years would she have to work for that increase to equal the cost of tuition at graduate school? She could pick up a few thousand dollars here or there by sponsoring or coaching extra-curriculars. Of course, this requires time away from her children, and the added expense of babysitting for evenings and weekends that are required for those activities. In what other profession do the number of hours we expect somebody to work for a few thousand dollars more per year go up so exponentially as in teaching? I will easily work an additional 300 hours this year on top of my contract day. My “extra-duty stipend” for vocal music is about $3600. That comes out to $12/hour. I’ll bet I could make more than that in tips working the snocone stand in the summer.

What I’m trying to say here, is that we are not paying our teachers a living wage. Even with no debt, and very conservative living expenses, an unmarried teacher with only two children to support must rely on government assistance to make ends meet. This is a professional with a college degree.

One more thing…

Ms. Smith’s base salary in Oklahoma is $35, 063.85. If Ms. Smith resided in Colorado Springs, CO, her base salary is $40,972. In Fayetville, Arkansas, it’s $46,869. In Witchita, KS–$44,390.

And if Ms. Smith moves two hours south to Denton, TX, her base salary is $51,625.

Don’t even try to tell me the price of milk is 68% higher in Denton, TX…

Trust in Me

If you want to start a fight in a bar full of teachers, all you need to do is utter one word: standards. That one little nine-letter word creates more overly-dramatic tension and unneeded suspense than the Friday episode of a soap opera. Teachers are offended by the idea that anybody outside of their classrooms should have a say in what happens there. Parents want stability and consistency. Legislators, as in most cases, just want their say, whether they’re qualified or not to give their opinion.

When I was growing up, I played competitive slow-pitch softball for nine years. My dad was my coach, and I played catcher. That meant I stayed late after practices and came early to games to help warm up the pitcher. To this day, the word “standards” sometimes evokes a different image for me. My dad, the coach, had in his possession two steal poles that could be adjusted to various heights. There was a notch at the top of each pole where he placed a bamboo rod across one connecting it to the other.

These were called “pitching standards”.

You see, slow-pitch softball was governed by two separate organizations with slightly different rules for play. For instance, in ASA (American Softball Association) play, every foul ball is a strike. In USSSA (United States Slow-pitch Softball Association) the first foul with two strikes does not count against the batter. The distance between bases is shorter in ASA than in USSAA. And…the expectations for pitching are slightly different. ASA prefers a pitch with a higher “arc”—the ball should reach a height of at least 6 feet and not more than 14 feet between the mound and the plate. USSAA prefers a flatter pitch—between 3 feet and 10 feet in arc.

This brings me back to my dad’s pitching standards. Much to my disdain, he dragged those things out to help the pitcher prepare for various ASA or USSAA tournaments. For ASA, she practiced making the pitches float over the bar, which was set at a height of 10-12 feet. For USSSA, she practiced pitching under the bar set at somewhere around 8 feet.

Which brings me to my much belabored point (I know what you’re thinking…Finally!)

Regardless of the standards, the purpose was the same: get the ball across the plate.

I teach music (see the name of my blog above). If it were up to me, there would be exactly three standards for music instruction. In my class, students should be learning to:

  • Create
  • Perform
  • Reflect

I don’t need a finite list of vocabulary words that my students should be able to identify. You don’t need to give me exhaustive lists of musical works and composers my students should study. And don’t get me started on yearly benchmarks predicting where students should be in their development as musicians—as long as each individual kid is growing, I don’t care if they all have exactly the same skill set at the end of each year.

Regardless of the standards, the purpose is the same: encourage my students to experience and understand music, and ultimately, themselves and others.

I’m not saying I don’t teach vocabulary and talk about Haydn and Mozart in my classes. I’m saying you don’t need to tell me to do those things. I will teach the language of music, and help my students experience a wide variety of musical literature because that will help them meet the ultimate goal of creating, performing, and reflecting. Furthermore, I believe the increased emphasis on standards has created a culture where teachers feel limited. We should trust teachers to know what’s best for kids. We should trust teachers to help students create, perform, and reflect IN EVERY SUBJECT. And if we don’t, we need to ask ourselves why…and what we can do for teacher training that will create a professional environment in which we don’t feel it necessary to micromanage teachers.

So to sum up…I don’t worry myself too much with standards (shh…don’t tell my boss). Let’s create a culture of autonomy for teachers, so they feel trusted to perform at the highest level of excellence in their calling and reflect on their teaching strategies in a way that leads to growth. Trust in me. Trust that I know how and what to teach my students. Trust in me.