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.

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