Dispelling Three Common Teacher Attacks

As Arizona citizens ramp up the #REDforED movement, social media is blowing up with heated conversation between those who support the movement and those who don’t. I have seen a few common arguments that I will explore in this blog: (1) Teachers knew their pay when they decided to become teachers, (2) Fire the teachers and replace them, and (3) Teachers get lots of time off. I hope to shed some light on these misconceptions and promote dialogue around these topics.

Teachers knew their pay before they started

Some critics argue that teachers “knew what they were getting into” when they decided to become teachers. Every time I see this comment, it takes me back to the moment I opened my first teacher paycheck. I was standing in the kitchen of my tiny Tempe condo and I felt kind of excited—my first check as a professional! No more college jobs! I had been hired to work in an upscale part of Phoenix for $32,500/year. The drive was about 30 minutes each way, so I was actively searching for homes closer to work (where housing ran in the $200K range). With heightened emotion, I tore open the check and blinked a few times at the number—around $800.

What? Something was wrong. I was a PROFESSIONAL now. I had heard people say, “teaching doesn’t pay well,” and I wasn’t expecting an exotic lifestyle. But this seemed a little extreme. $800? Could I make it work? Seeing that first check knocked the wind out of me. I remember calling my brother in tears saying, “I can barely even afford to stay in my condo! I can’t afford to move closer to work!” At that time, the mandatory deduction for state retirement was only 2.2% and there were no costs for my insurance. Today, the mandatory state retirement deduction is 11.5% and teachers have high cost insurance premiums like other working professionals. At the end of that year, I resigned from the position to find a job where I could afford to live.

I’ve been wondering how much teacher salaries have changed from 1999 (when I decided to be a teacher) to now. Are the critics right? Should I have known what I was getting into? I decided to examine annual reports on the National Center for Teaching Statistics to see how Arizona and US teacher salaries have changed between the school years 1999-2000 and 2016-17 (their most recent report). I created the table and graph below.

Jess Graph-Avg Pay TableJess Teacher Pay Graph

These graphs were really helpful as I tried to understand what Arizona teachers are experiencing financially. See that dip on the right side of the Arizona line graph beginning in 2014-15? I remember that time in my local public school. The district held meetings to talk about the decreased school funding in Arizona, the fact that they no longer expected it to return, the disrepair of our buildings, the need for updated materials, and the increasing cost of health insurance. That year, some of those costs started getting passed to teachers. Annual raises decreased. Districts began eliminating salary schedules that increased teacher salaries based on experience and advanced education. From that point on, little has changed for teacher salaries each year. Cost of living goes up. Teacher salaries barely budge. In the graph, you can see how Arizona teacher salaries diverge from US teacher salaries in most recent years.

I started wondering about inflation. How does the current Arizona average teacher salary ($47,403) compare with the 1999 salary ($36,871) when adjusted for inflation? According to an online inflation calculator, prices in 2017 were 46.9% higher than in 1999. A salary of $36,871 in 1999 is equivalent to a salary of $54,175 in 2017. Comparing this projected teacher salary ($54,175) with the actual 2017 salary ($47,403), there’s a difference of $6,772. According to the National Center for Teaching Statistics as well as CNN, the average teacher salary has fallen 10% since 1999. Believe me, teachers can feel that difference.

As inflation rises, Arizona teacher salaries have remained very similar each year despite the gradual rise in US teacher salaries. I have heard people argue that Arizona has a lower cost of living and teachers don’t need to be paid the average US teacher salary. It’s an interesting argument that I have not fully researched (but would love to read!). However, I can say this: There is a much larger gap between teachers salaries in Arizona and the US now compared to years ago. I think that gap is the problem Arizona is facing with retaining teachers.

A note on this section: I have done my very best to create these graphs factually in good faith. Please feel free to examine the data yourself and kindly alert me if you find any errors. Links for all the data are at the bottom of the blog.

Fire the teachers and replace them

For those who have not followed recent news about the teacher shortage in Arizona, this might seem like a solution. But the truth is: Arizona is already hemorrhaging teachers! In December, AZ Central reported there were 2,000 open Arizona teacher positions and 3,400 jobs filled by people who were “not trained to teach.” There simply aren’t enough people—trained or untrained—willing to work in schools given the Arizona teacher working conditions right now.

In May 2017, our state legislature reduced the requirements for teacher certification claiming there are people who would teach if certification were easier. It has not brought a flood of teachers. In September 2017, Governor Ducey launched Arizona Teachers Academy, offering scholarships to individuals who desire to teach. Teacher flood? Nope. If you know any real-life teachers, you have heard that teaching is a very demanding job. And the truth is: There aren’t enough people willing to be teachers in Arizona right now.

I have written about how the teacher shortage has affected me—how it’s REAL and very troubling—and how we cannot even get substitute teachers. Daniela Robles wrote an excellent piece about how the teacher shortage affects students, especially when unqualified individuals are hired to fill positions. We need to retain every Arizona citizen who is willing to teach. And we need a plan to improve funding and working conditions in AZ schools to make that possible.

Teachers get lots of time off

When people think about how much time their kids get off school, they think that teachers get lots of time off school. I think this misconception makes a lot of sense from that perspective. What are those teachers doing while your kids are at home? Honestly, they are probably working!

Yesterday, I saw a Tweet mentioning that teacher contracts include 210 paid days. The author argued that teachers only work 2/3 of the year, so $40K is not a bad salary. Put that way, it’s a really good argument. Here’s the truth though: Teachers only get PAID to work 210 days a year. But teachers work far more than 210 days per year. Have you talked to teachers who work 60 hours a week? On their weekends? Over holiday breaks? During the summer? I can tell you: I am one of those teachers and I know many, many more.

Because of the large class sizes in Arizona (some of the highest in the nation), Arizona teachers work far outside school hours and contracted days. If you’ve ever seen a beautiful, well-organized classroom at Back-to-School Night, you have seen how teachers spend their summers. See, teacher contracts only start a few days before students return—and those days are packed with meetings and trainings. Many teachers return to work early (unpaid) or work very late nights to get their classrooms nice and shiny before students arrive. Arguing that teachers are paid well for their “210 days” just adds insult to injury. Teaching is not a standard 40 hour, 5 days a week job in Arizona. There is far too much work to do. Balancing work-life and personal life is a major struggle for Arizona teachers, and it makes the job very stressful. We could fix this problem by increasing pay or decreasing the class size so the workload and pay are more balanced compared to other jobs.

The bottom line here is that, regardless of how many days teachers are officially paid to work and whether that wage is fair, we need teachers who are willing to work in the state of Arizona! Whatever we choose to pay teachers has to be a livable wage that makes individuals willing to complete teacher training and show up each day for work. What we are finding in the state of Arizona is that there are no longer enough individuals willing to do that.

Some people say that teachers walking out on Thursday are “walking out on kids.” I disagree. The teachers who walk out on kids are the MANY who abandon this job year after year after year. The teachers who are walking out on Thursday—whether or not you agree with them—are teachers hoping to create better working conditions so they can STAY!

Thank you for taking the time to read about these three common teacher misconceptions. I look forward to your comments down below. For those wishing to better understand the #REDforED movement that seeks to improve education in Arizona, you might enjoy my recent blog. Please do get involved advocating for education in Arizona. Kids, teachers, and schools need you!

Links to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (used to create table and graph): 1999-00, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17

Feature image credit: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1136501


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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