Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part II

2. Teachers are overpaid.

Critics of teacher’s unions like to claim we’re overpaid. This is a convenient claim, because it’s impossible to refute exactly without a clear sense of what we’re worth. They aren’t lying if they think we’re essentially worthless, which many of them seem to do. I suspect these kinds of critics have very little sense of what we do each day, and I would love to change jobs with one of them for just one day and see how they succeed with my 170 students. Unfortunately, because these vague claims about our compensation are repeated so often, many rational people who value education and educators come to believe we are overpaid, while filtering that notion through their own conception of fair payment.

One of my best friends was working as a tax attorney for a private firm in Portland, and overheard his boss complaining about how little teachers are paid. “They only pay them eighty thousand dollars a year,” the boss informed everyone. My friend, whose wife is a public school teacher, bit his tongue. The boss was trying to argue for teachers, but had no idea that we make far, far less than that. Starting pay, on average, is in the low thirties. In places like Oregon, it tops out in the mid sixties. This is slightly on the low end for national averages. California’s average is $64,424, while South Dakota has the bottom spot with an average of $36,674. This wouldn’t be so bad, if one could get a job teaching right out of high school, but many of us have masters degrees we’ve refinanced for thirty years so that we can still pay the rent. That means we are making student loan payments for, in many cases, our entire careers. This particular boss, a lawyer, probably paid a hefty sum in student loans for his education. For that large amount he received one more year of education than I have (unless he went on for an LLM). As a consequence of that education, he made so much money that he considered that mythical $80,000 a year teacher paycheck laughable.

Critics often bring up our benefits. It’s true, we’ve accepted salary reductions in exchange for the security of fixed retirement plans (usually provided by our states) and better medical plans. But I can tell you that all the school districts I’ve taught for try to chip away at these with higher out-of-pocket expenses and co-pays every time our contracts are renegotiated. Without our unions, we’d be working for our health care coverage alone.

Some point out that teachers earn more, per hour, than many other white collar jobs. That’s true. So, how can teachers earn more per hour when we earn less per year? Because, even though we work vastly more hours than we’re paid for, technically we’re unemployed for months out of every year. More on that tomorrow.

Now, one can certainly argue that all things are relative. Compared to a teacher’s salary in, say central Africa, I’m rolling in dough. But compared to most Americans with a similar level of education, I’m a shmuck if pay is the measure of success. I tell my students I do my job because I enjoy it and think it’s important, not for the paycheck, and that’s true. But every time someone implies that my paycheck is too large, I admit I enjoy my job just a little bit less.

Tomorrow, Myth #3: Teachers get lots and lots of vacation.