Is teaching a dead end job?

Education was a priority in my family.  I really did not have much of a choice and if I heard once — I heard at least a thousand times that you need do well in school — go to college and get a good paying job to support your family.  I did just that and pursued my passion — teaching.  I have to admit I loved the classroom — never a dull moment and always challenging.  I never once considered during my undergraduate education that once a teacher with a family of four I would qualify for free and reduced lunch — this is hard to believe but it was true.

My starting salary was $21,456.00 — which was pretty decent for a teacher in 1991.  However, I found myself struggling to make ends meet.  I worked full-time as a teacher, coached three sports, and during the summer acted as a laborer/gopher for my brother-in-laws plumbing company.  I worked far harder than some of my counterparts who decided to go into different fields.  I was grading papers and preparing lessons on Saturday’s and Sunday’s and over the summer I was teaching, coaching and acting like a plumber.  Doing all of this and I still had trouble making ends meet on my meager salary. This does not mention the loans that I would need to take out to pursue my Masters Degree in order to make more money on the salary schedule.  The $1,500 I received when I got my Masters Degree paled in comparison to my capital outlay of over $10,000.

Yes — I was fully aware that going into teaching did not equal millionaire status.  But I did expect to be able to pay my bills and feed my family without my wife working full-time when our children were babies.

NO I am not complaining — please do read into this that I regret my decision to enter into education!

Teaching is an amazing profession and believe it or not I would do it all over again given the choice.

BUT — I left the classroom to become an administrator.  Not because I had a desire to be an administrator —  it simply pays better — and is really the only career advancement available to teachers.  

Teaching is a dead end job of sorts.  Teachers are not afforded any economic mobility — once you are teaching in a school district for 8-10 years you will either leave the classroom to become an administrator, leave education, or retire from that very school district.  Ohio, like most states mandate by law that teachers have to be granted at least five years of service — anything beyond five years is the school districts discretion.  So moving to a different school district often results in a huge pay cut.

For those who may be unfamiliar with a salary schedule, it works like this — you start low and each year of experience is a “step” and that step is a modest raise.  Many of these salary schedules have up to 35 steps!   So to get to the top salary — you have to be in the district for 35 years!.

You literally have a situation whereby everyone is doing the same job (teaching kids) — but getting paid all different salaries.  I was in a department of seven teachers — each of them had been in the district a very long time — they all made $40,000 plus more than I did doing the same job — the only difference was I was young — they were old!  I have to admit, I never understood this system that pays teachers at drastically different rates.  I can understand that experience and additional education matter — but it seems almost silly that because Teacher A has been teaching for 27 years and Teacher B has been teaching 10 years that the salaries would be drastically far apart.

There has been a dizzying amount of discussion on how to retain, recruit and avoid teacher burnout. Nationally we see a decrease in the numbers of kids in college that want to become teachers.  We are in the midst of a teacher shortage as our baby boomers retire and icing on this cake,  once they are teaching they don’t last very long — they leave leave the profession within the first five years.

Money is a contributing factor — along with —  the stress of the classroom — the difficulty with kids and parents — the lack of autonomy — failure to be taken seriously as a professional — no career advancement — ultimately these factors drive them out of the profession.

Maybe we need to consider a different model — it starts with compensation — and ends with new ways to use teachers in other important roles in the district.   If we paid teachers more like other beginning college graduates more kids might be attracted to the job.  With that model we would use shorter time frames to get to the top — no more 35 years.

The most important change would be how we see and use teachers.  We need to become more flexible with days kids are in school and the roles we assign teachers.  Teachers need to take starring roles in the administration of the district.  As an administrator, I wanted to teach ONE course and was prevented from doing so because of my status as an administrator!  We need to give teachers more diverse roles that contribute to the functioning of the building or district.

Imagine if the principal was a collective — and the curriculum experts actually had teaching assignments and all of the professionals in the building served in capacities that valued them as professionals but also advanced their careers.

I really would have never left the classroom if I had that kind of flexibility, paid a wage comparable to other college graduates and experience in different roles throughout the year or day.  I suspect that if we re-design the teachers role and function — coupled with competitive salaries — we would stem the tide of exodus out of the profession.  Just some food for thought!


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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