Good Teachers Still Deserve Six Figure Salaries

Back in 1998 when I was embarking on my 10th year as a teacher, I had an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times about paying good teachers six figure salaries.

In the 16 years since then, little has changed.

The argument for more money is based on respect, not greed. In society, how much a person earns is directly related to how that person is perceived.   Teachers have little leverage in their profession and that is due to their pay. Higher teacher salaries would translate into increased clout.

As President Obama referenced in his 2011 State of the Union address, in South Korea teachers are known as “nation builders.”   A significant reason they have this perception is that their salaries are equivalent to other professions in that country; not so in America.

Here a teacher’s salary is not only less than comparative careers, but is ranked third out of four pay divisions at a school: administrator, counselor, teacher, clerk in high to low order.

In Glendale Unified School District, the fourth largest district in Los Angeles County,, the starting salary of a teacher is $46,868, of a counselor is $49,391, and an administrator is $63,622, while the highest salary for each category is $90,802, $106,862, and $142,337, respectively.

The salary of a first-year administrator is equivalent to that of a 12-year veteran classroom teacher.   Twelve years is about one-third of a person’s working life. No wonder many administrators exit teaching after a short stint in the classroom.

Over the course of their careers, a teacher can’t quite double her salary, a counselor can double her salary plus $8,000, and an administrator can more than double her salary plus $15,000.

At the bottom of the pay scale, the salary of two administrators doesn’t quite equal the salary of three teachers.   However, at the top of the pay scale, two administrators’ salaries surpass that of three teachers.   In other words, with more experience, the separation between administrators and teachers lengthens, implying that the value of an experienced administrator is worth more than the value of an experienced teacher.

It is interesting to note that the turnover rate among administrators is higher than that of teachers even though they are paid more.

And, don’t forget, counselors and administrators have secretaries to assist them. Not teachers.

The main argument opposed to higher pay for teachers is that there is no money for it.

Yet, there is money for so many other things whose impact on student learning is questionable including extensive diagnostic testing. One cannot minimize the impact that a qualified teacher has on a young person’s life.

And the competency of that instructor rests on a wing and a prayer.

Without financial incentives, principals can’t motivate their teachers to work harder because they can’t offer a bonus or a promotion.   Principals can’t threaten teachers if they don’t perform at a certain level of competence since teacher tenure locks in instructors for life.

Paying teachers solely based on experience and education breeds a lack of quality control.   With no reward for more effective work, the only variable separating a good teacher from a poor one is that teacher’s personal work ethic, a trait not taught in credential courses or staff development, meaning that too much of quality teaching hinges on pure luck.

I am not proposing that the salaries of my colleagues in the counseling and administration departments decrease.   However, as long as teachers rank third out of four pay classifications, the power they wield will remain minimal, and the prestige of the teaching profession will continue to languish.

No matter how often people articulate the importance of teachers, the proof is in the pay scale.

Nation builders?   Not in America.

What’s Better for Students: Dynamic Teachers or Diagnostic Testing?

This summer has not been kind to California educators with increased deductions from their paychecks to pay for the pension fund, and tenure and job protection ruled illegal by a Superior Court judge.

So it was refreshing to hear good things said about teachers at last week’s district kickoff meeting from keynote speaker Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year who still teaches 7th grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School.

Ms. Mieliwocki spoke about her experiences traveling around the world as the U.S. teacher ambassador. Since so much attention in recent years has centered on how students from other nations score higher on tests than American children, she wanted to find what magic was being performed in other countries’ classrooms.

Ironically, Ms. Mieliwocki discovered that it was the American teachers who “were the envy of every teacher I met.”   The foreign instructors queried her about the methods of her homeland colleagues.

She went on to tell stories about the importance of teachers accepting students for who they are.  

One young girl in her class always wore the same cowboy boots with flowers on them every day to school.   Some students wondered why she didn’t have another pair of shoes to wear.   It turned out that her father had passed away and the boots were the last item they had bought together. When she wore the boots, she felt close to her dad.

Once her powerful message had been delivered, and teachers were inspired, on came the next speaker, a representative from a testing company called i-Ready.   Too bad the district didn’t seem ready to properly unroll this new program of testing all K-12 students three times a year beginning in a couple of weeks.

When Rebecca spoke, she had the full attention of the teacher throng. When the spokesperson for the new i-Ready testing program presented, a sea of LED lanterns erupted as teachers got out their phones, quickly feeling disconnected including one male teacher sitting in front of me shopping for a thong.

I had to go to i-Ready’s website to get basic information of what was behind the new diagnostic testing: “i-Ready provides data-driven insights and support for successful implementation of the new standards.”  

On top of new Common Core standards that teachers are still adjusting to, now we have this intrusive testing schedule that will devour at least 2 hours for each test.

It’s sad, really, that the district folks don’t get it.   Teachers don’t need more information on kids because we are not provided the necessary time to analyze the data we already have. Students march in and out of classrooms day after day.   Except for an hour long meeting here and there, teachers have no regularly scheduled full work days to examine data with their colleagues.

The kickoff meeting was a clash of two conflicting approaches to education: the inspiration of a dynamic teacher versus the top-down implementation of mandatory testing. The latter presentation quashed the excitement of the one that preceded it.

If only the district brass had the foresight to end the all-staff meeting immediately following Ms. Mieliwocki’s speech, releasing them to use the rest of the day to set up their classrooms for the students.

It reminds one of Charles Dickens’ powerful opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

As Ms. Mieliwocki said, people “have to be brave to take on the work of an educator.”

My Mentor, Mr. Sage

I was contacted by an author to contribute an essay to a book on influential teachers. No, I’m not one of the influential teachers; rather, I am writing about one of my influential teachers.

John Sage, my advanced 10th grade English teacher, impacted my life more than any other teacher I had. While a very good teacher, what I remember most about him has little to do with his lesson plans.

I was impressed by the way he approached his job. He was the best dressed teacher at Burroughs High School, always wearing a suit jacket, tie, and shiny shoes. His demeanor was proper; he was a gracious gentleman who loved literature.

When I was hospitalized at age 15 at UCLA’s Medical Center, he visited me twice, each time with a book as a present.

He took me to my first serious dramatic play, Jason Robards reprising his career-making role of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
After graduating high school, we kept in touch. When he retired to a condo in San Clemente, he’d invite me down for dinner. He was a wonderful gourmet cook. When he was in the mood, he would serenade me and other dinner guests with his piano playing and singing.
When I was considering teaching as a profession, he patiently listened to my pro and con arguments.
No matter how often I saw him socially, I could never call him by his first name. It’s like one’s mother or father — it’s always Mom and Dad.
Years ago I heard someone say that each of us is the sum of all the people we encounter in our lives. I am the type of teacher I am today mainly because of Mr. Sage. In fact, I dedicated my first book on teaching to him, even though he died months before its publication.
It’s hard for me to believe that right now I’m at the age that Mr. Sage was when I had him as a teacher. And soon I will retire, and hopefully continue receiving visits from former students, as I did with Mr. Sage. I hope I do justice to his memory by writing these words.