At every stage, getting and keeping teachers in U.S. classrooms has become a challenge. Longtime teachers are retiring while mid-career and novice teachers are leaving for other pursuits. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 8 percent of the men and women teaching in public schools during the 2011-12 school year left the profession the next year. And fewer young people are signing up to spend time in classrooms in the first place.
A new analysis from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute argues that “providing adequate wages and benefits is a crucial tool for attracting and keeping the teachers America’s children need.” The report notes that teacher pay has fallen behind what other comparable workers earn. While public-school teachers made $30 less per week (adjusted for inflation) in 2015 than in 1996, around $1,092 from $1,122, wages for college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416. Where other college-educated workers used to make just slightly more per week than teachers, they now earn significantly more. (The report’s authors acknowledge that teachers generally have better benefits than other professionals, so focusing solely on wages overstates the disadvantage teachers face in terms of total compensation, but they point out that only wages and not benefits can be spent and saved.)
Put another way, there are only five states where teachers make within 10 percent of what other college graduates earn, and there is not a single state where teachers earn the same or more than other people with four-year degrees. Experienced teachers have borne the brunt of the wage erosion, which has likely hurt retention. And teacher turnover is highest among blacks and Latinos, who are more likely to work in districts serving some of the most disadvantaged children.
Back in 1960, teaching was one of the few careers truly accessible to women, and they actually earned almost 15 percent more per week than comparable female workers. It’s more common now than several decades ago for women to be engineers and doctors, architects and chemists, all more lucrative prospects. But while increasing pay might help keep more teachers in schools and encourage more young people to see teaching as a career option, there are a number of other factors exacerbating the problem, which means there’s no easy fix.
“Teachers have also been subjected to demonization” from people and politicians from both the right and left, said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute and one of the authors of the report, noting that Education Secretary John King in January felt the need to offer what many saw as an apology to teachers after taking over the Education Department. “Despite the best of intentions, teachers and principals have felt attacked and unfairly blamed for the challenges our nation faces as we strive to improve outcomes for all students," King said at the time.
Of course, there are individuals and groups, the conservative Heritage Foundation among them, that argue teachers earn as much or more than people with similar cognitive abilities, and the Economic Policy Institute has been criticized for implying that a certain level of education should mean a certain salary.
But in interviews with more than half a dozen former teachers, some of whom I tracked down via Twitter, a lack of support—from school and district administrators, lawmakers, and the community more broadly—came up most frequently as a rationale for leaving. Money, when it was a factor at all, was always a secondary reason. That’s not entirely surprising given that people rarely go into teaching for the money. Some see educating children as an act of service. Others stumble into the profession wide-eyed after college. Still others pursue a career in the classroom because it’s what their mothers did, and their grandmothers before that. But no one goes into teaching for the paycheck alone.
In fact, many of the men and women who leave teaching actually take pay cuts, said Joydeep Roy, a senior economist at the Independent Budget Office of New York City who has studied where teachers go when they leave education. Many become librarians, cashiers, secretaries, or even clergy members, often suffering in terms of earnings.
Dulce-Marie Flecha spent five years in a classroom, three of them teaching some of New York City’s most disadvantaged kids. But this fall, Flecha isn’t headed back to school; she just started a job at a nonprofit earning less than she could make as a senior teacher, instead. Why’d she quit? “I’m trying to think of a good summarizing reason,” she said, “but honestly, there are more reasons to leave than there are to stay in education right now. At a certain point you kind of have to pay for your own sanity, you know?”
Flecha regularly worked 10 or even 12 hours, meaning she rarely saw her boyfriend and couldn’t see how she’d start the family she envisioned. She frequently spent her own money on supplies for her students. Even when she wasn’t technically working, Flecha stressed about meeting what seemed to be a constantly shifting set of standards, and felt pulled in all directions by parent and student expectations that varied wildly from district and school expectations. “There were a lot of different voices in [my] ear at the same time,” Flecha said. Running on “pure passion” just wasn’t sustainable.
“There’s this sort of unsaid expectation that teachers should be happy to give up so much time and money out of love for children,” Flecha said. More money and mentorship might keep some people in the profession longer, she added, but novice teachers need honest advice about the demands they will face. “I don’t think anybody told me I was going to cry under my desk.”
That’s especially true for people who don’t study education in college and instead end up in classrooms through programs like Teach for America, which allows for just several months of training instead of four years. After studying political science, Matt Brown was dispatched through the program to an inner-city New Orleans school to teach fourth grade. He lasted one year before leaving for a desk job in human resources. “I made $4,000 more and worked half as much,” he said. “Nobody cussed at me, nobody tried to choke me, I didn’t go home crying.” Nearly all of his students were low-income and he found himself trying to address myriad non-academic needs without adequate support or training. More professional development might help, he said, “but I don’t think that would have been enough to keep me there.” Brown didn’t see a clear career trajectory and work-life balance was elusive, which made imagining a rewarding future in teaching difficult. Most of the people he started teaching with left the profession, too, he said.
Raheem Jarbo, who became a teacher through a similar initiative in Philadelphia after majoring in English, taught for about nine years, but also ultimately left to pursue a rap career under the name Mega Ran. “It wasn’t the students” that prompted him to switch careers, he said, “it was the administration. I miss the students a lot.” As an African American man, he felt pressure from mentors and others to stay and serve as a role model for the young boys of color in his classroom who saw few other teachers like him, he said, but he felt stifled creatively, and navigating relationships with administrators who seemed more concerned about passing grades and test scores than learning, and with parents who either couldn’t or wouldn’t become involved, proved tricky.
As a male elementary-school teacher, Brad Avakian said he was also something of an anomaly at his school in Florida. More than 80 percent of teachers are female, and some parents said they were uncomfortable with a man teaching their young children, he recalled. “I don’t remember a whole lot of community support,” he said. After several years in the classroom, Avakian decided to become a lawyer after an enjoyable stint as a juror. His hours are just as long now and he misses having a summer break, he said, but the hours teaching were far beyond the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. timeframe many people assume, and not teaching in the summer meant he often went a month or two with no paycheck. Some teachers enjoy time off in the summer, Mishel, the study author, said, but “one person’s leisure is another person’s forced unemployment.” And many teachers teach summer school, find other temporary work, or go to trainings and conferences during the summer, so the idea that teachers are just lounging around isn’t accurate.
Even teachers who studied education in college and have spent decades in classrooms say the recent emphasis on teaching to the test and incorporating an ever-changing array of technology into their work has become too draining. Beth Duke, who spent 22 years in classrooms, most of them in Texas, said that she knew it was time leave in 2013 when she felt like she was being asked to devote more of her attention to bureaucracy than to helping children learn and grow.
“It just wasn’t what teaching used to be for me,” Duke said, of the years following Common Core’s implementation as states, even those like Texas that didn’t adopt the standards, emphasized preparing kids for tests. Money wasn’t a factor in the decision, she said, adding that she spent hours at IKEA buying supplies to make her classroom inviting, and that she was even happy to spend 60 to 65 hours each week making sure kids were learning. “I poured my heart into teaching,” she said.
But pressure to focus on test scores and what seemed to be a change in classroom technology every time she felt she had a grasp of the previous infrastructure got to be too much. “I often thought that if I could combine what I know as an educator with somebody who had a better grasp of the technology, the two together would make a fantastic teacher,” she said, adding that she’s a “little worried” that younger generations of teachers rely so much on technology that they don’t necessarily have a full understanding of what good curriculum looks like. Duke now works with her husband, who owns a medical group, giving presentations and trainings.
“I think you’re born a teacher,” she added. “I think that will always be around.” But Duke thinks more teachers would stay, she said, if “government could find its way out of the classroom so it could go back to being about people who understand how to educate.”
While most of the people interviewed for this story expressed mixed emotions about leaving the classroom—relief at escaping some of the stress, a longing to continue facilitating the moment kids finally grasp a new concept—a few said they’re happy to be done.
“It’s an unequivocal no,” said John T., a former teacher with a master’s degree in education who did not want to use his last name and who now works in construction in South Carolina making nearly double what he earned in the classroom, when asked whether he missed teaching. He spent years teaching in inner-city Charlotte, he said, and thinks safety nets have been cut to the point that parents are forced to work multiple jobs to pay the bills and leave much of the raising of their kids to relatives or other siblings. “When I was in eighth grade, I took an aptitude test and it told me I’d make a good social worker. By the time I got done teaching, that’s pretty much what I felt like. These kids were coming to school with immense amounts of baggage,” he said. “I’d wish teaching on my worst enemy right now.”
That’s a more vehemently negative response than most former teachers might give, but it doesn’t necessarily surprise people like Elaine Weiss, Mishel’s colleague at the Economic Policy Institute, who has studied the link between poverty and educational attainment. Where teachers feel pushed to teach to a test and where states haven’t focused on giving schools the resources to try to close the opportunity gaps between rich and poor children that lead to wide gaps in test scores, educators feel dissatisfied. Teachers, she said, feel excluded from the process of shaping education policy.
“We need to step up as a society and say these are the people nurturing the next generation of citizens,” Weiss said. Mishel agrees. “People should talk more to teachers,” he echoed. “Teachers have to feel they have a voice on the job.”