Teachers are undervalued. We all know this.
I knew it when I decided to go into teaching as a profession 20 years ago. My idealistic young self didn't care that it wasn't a lucrative career — I just wanted to make a difference and help kids learn.
But when the reality of a five-figure student loan combined with a beginning teacher's salary hit, I realized that what we expect of educators isn't just unrealistic — it's insulting.
And it hasn't gotten better since then.
Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma are saying "Enough is enough."
Right now, the state of Oklahoma is looking at a teacher walkout scheduled for April 2, in protest of the state legislature's refusal to raise teacher wages. The walkout comes on the heels of a successful teacher's strike in West Virginia, in which public schools were shut down for nine days before legislators agreed to a 5% teacher raise, among other concessions.
Oklahoma's teachers haven't had a state-wide raise in 10 years. According to the National Education Association, Oklahoma ranks 48th for teacher pay, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are dead last.
What does that look like in real dollars? The minimum starting salary in the Sooner State for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience is $31,600. The minimum salary for a teacher with a master's and 25 years of experience is $43,950. And wrapped up in those salaries are the "fringe benefits" of insurance and retirement.
Teachers' per-hour pay is painfully low for what they do and for the skill and education required to do it.
One Oklahoma teacher calculated that at her current salary of $40,000, when all is said and done, she earns approximately $12 per hour. (The idea that teachers only work 8-hour days, nine months a year has been roundly debunked by every person who has ever been a teacher. Argue if you must, but this is a mountain I am willing to die on.)
Another Oklahoma educator took to Facebook to explain the reality of the teaching life in her state. Beth Wallis' viral, heartfelt post describing her day begins with her bank account being overdrawn because the gas company overbilled her. (Yes, an extra gas bill was enough to put her in the red.)
Then she describes her heartbreak over finding out one of her kindergarteners had died, and beautifully explains how deeply teachers care about their students:
"This is the third student of mine in four years that has passed and it never gets easier. We love these children, we care for them, we will protect them with our bodies from bullets and tornados. We watch every school shooting go by, wondering if our district will be next; wondering if we'd be able to save them all before inevitably getting shot ourselves. We wipe their noses and dry their tears. We hold their hands and do everything we can to make sure they grow up to be strong, successful adults. We stay after school for hours listening to middle and high schoolers crying over their parents' divorces or identity struggles, taking on the roles as therapist and advocate. We truly, genuinely, and deeply care for their happiness and wellbeing."
When you are a teacher, your students are like your kids.
I know that feeling. You can't do the work if you don't care deeply, which makes every loss, every heartache, every struggle your students experience weigh heavy on your heart.
Wallis goes on to describe the stresses students and teachers are under, and the tensions felt by all as districts weigh the consequences of a walkout. Then she lays out the reality of Oklahoma's education system and why the walkout is necessary:
"If you think this is about greedy Oklahoma teachers who drive Mercedes-Benzes and just put a down payment on a summer home, you're dead wrong. Our students don't have BOOKS, guys. Our classrooms are sitting 30 deep and my district has it MADE compared to any of the major public schools in the state (40-50 students per class). We had over 1,800 emergency certifications this last year in the state. You think your kids are being taught by the most qualified, experienced teachers? They're gone. The few of us who've stayed behind do it ONLY for the kids. Oklahoma kids DESERVE quality, compassionate education and I will provide that as long as I am able ... but that's not going to be forever. What if I were ever to want kids of my own? I can't even afford an extra gas bill, much less provide for a child. I'm nearly 30 with a Master’s degree and still live in a rent house with a roommate in a state with one of the lowest cost-of-livings in the country and I will never be able to afford an actual mortgage if I stay here.
Teachers should not be expected to be martyrs.
Finally, Wallis lays down what is, to me, the bottom line here. This is the part that too many people in our country — and certainly too many legislators — don't seem to have a solid grasp on:
"STOP EQUATING TEACHERS WITH MARTYRS.
We are professionals. We are trained, educated, hardworking professionals who deserve to be paid for the work we do. We're expected to work before and after our contracted hours every single day to get our grades in and plan for quality instruction, but most of us pray that our car can run off fumes just one more day? We're expected to take bullets for students but most of us can barely make rent?"
You don't understand the expectations placed on teachers from all sides unless you've experienced it.
I wish everyone could be a teacher for a year.
Please try squeezing in planning for an entire day of teaching, plus grading, plus dealing with a broken copy machine, plus using the restroom, all within a 45-minute period. Try not to do work in the evenings and on weekends.
Try to keep up with education and training on your own dime and your own time. Try making sure your students are able to learn effectively, despite their struggles with mental health, parents getting divorced, waking up to an empty refrigerator, and more. Try making do with the supplies in your classroom without dipping into your own pocket.
Meme via Education to the Core.
Try communicating with parents who may or may not feel the need to take an active role in their kids' educations. Try keeping your students engaged while also preparing them for endless standardized tests. Try keeping a room full of 6-year-olds quiet through an active shooter drill without scaring them to death.
Be a mentor. Be a counselor. Be a miracle worker. Be a shield. Do it all for one year and tell me teachers don't deserve to get paid more.
In my adult life, I've worked in various professions in addition to teaching. I remember my first day working as an office manager and marveling at the ability to go to the bathroom at my leisure. No job I've ever had has come close to the amount of work that teaching entailed, no job has ever had as much direct impact on our world, and in no other job did I feel so drastically underpaid.
As Beth Wallis points out, teachers are highly trained professionals, and they ought to be compensated as such. We should all stand with Oklahoma teachers, and with all teachers everywhere who have been expected to be martyrs for far too long.