Public school teachers are imperative to a functioning democratic society. They are charged with educating the next generation. Yet their salaries are notoriously low.
These economic struggles can be understood with challenges that arise in the greater context of a society that oftentimes disrespects teaching as a profession. Those who critique teachers, and even some of those creating education policy and mandating state or district level practices, do not know—or care to know—what really goes on within the walls of a classroom. Indeed, this year witnessed the confirmation of a Secretary of Education with zero experience in public schools .
But even in the face of these challenges, every teacher interviewed discussed what they love about their jobs, what gets them up every morning. VICE Impact spoke to ten teachers from public school districts across the United States to learn more about the realities of getting by on a teacher's salary.
In this second and final part, we look at the benefits of teacher unions and how teaching is somehow denounced as a profession—but what keeps teachers going anyway.
The Presence of Teaching Unions
Most interviewees have union representation, but the existence and strength of the unions varied regionally, with teachers attesting to much stronger representation in Northeastern and Midwestern urban and suburban areas than in the South or rural West. Particularly active unions have bargained for pay and have publicly available pay scales, like that of New York City and Chicago.
"We're very lucky that we have a collective bargaining agreement and we do have a union," Aliyah Johnson of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana told VICE Impact. "But it's only been in place for two years. I don't think they negotiated around pay." She continued: "This is a huge contrast with Pennsylvania [for example], where there are incredibly strong teacher's unions in terms of pay, and benefits."
Marie Bercik noticed a similar contrast: "I loved my union in New Jersey. But in Colorado, it's a totally different story. It was optional to be a part of it and they don't bargain for salaries."
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Ann McCabe's move from Massachusetts to North Carolina witnessed a shift from a strong union that bargained for their salaries to no union at all. "With the union in Somerville, I felt like my time was a lot more valuable. There's no union in [Chapel Hill,] North Carolina."
"We're very lucky that we have a collective bargaining agreement and we do have a union,"
In a 2012 Fordham Institute analysis of teacher union strength across the fifty states, Louisiana ranked 42nd, Colorado 35th, and North Carolina 40th, respectively.
National Landscape: Rhetoric, Policies, Trickle-down Effect
All of the teachers interviewed spoke about consistently putting in anywhere from five to 25 extra hours a week of curriculum prep, lesson planning, homework help, administrative obligations, and grading—on top of 40 hour work-weeks. Some spoke about spending hundreds of dollars for school supplies for their students. Those who said their schools didn't have severe resource problems credited their principals for prioritizing those needs in innovative budget decisions.
Despite all of this, there is a national permeation of rhetoric that often denounces teaching as a profession. From the TIME magazine cover emblazoned with "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That," to politicians declaring the national teachers union deserved "a punch in the face"—this is in the greater context of top-down policy decisions ranging from standardized testing to Title I eligibility to portable funding and school vouchers—all of which have daily impacts on teachers' and their students' lives.
"For many reasons, historical and otherwise, teaching as a profession is often diminished and unvalued. It is an interesting paradox," the Essex County, NJ teacher told VICE Impact. "When individuals are asked about schools and teachers in general, they say that schools are a mess and teachers are terrible. When asked about their specific schools and their kid's teachers, they say that they are wonderful and an exception to the rule,"
The Nevada County, CA teacher addressed this disconnect: "It is a little hard to be a teacher and not feel disrespected in general, but greatly appreciated by the few who we are serving. The reward comes to us as individuals, based on the appreciation shown to us in our community. But on a national level, and spanning the careers, teaching salaries are often a punchline."
McCabe spoke to low salaries as indicative of American society's broad disrespect for teaching as a profession.
"One of the things I do think is a problem is the constantly shifting landscape of standardized testing and telling us what to do."
"If you pay teachers more, you will attract better teachers. Teachers will feel appreciated more. I'm moving to teach at a school in Mongolia. I'll be making more there than in the top district in North Carolina. Why is that?" She asked, then adding: "Part of the reason kids don't respect teachers is because society doesn't."
Eliza Bryant spoke to what's at risk due to the politicization of education—particularly at the hands of those with little to no education experience.
"I find it ridiculous that so many of the people making policy decisions regarding education have zero experience actually teaching in the classroom," she said. "Chicago Public Schools—the poorest and most racially diverse district in the state of Illinois—is bankrupt, and is frequently used as a political volleyball, tossed between Chicago's mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, and our billionaire governor, Bruce Rauner. Teaching is a profession. Teachers work hard to hone their craft, but somehow, politicians seem to think that what we do can't be that difficult because they impose extremely difficult testing benchmarks, that set students up for failure, especially students in my district who have the most obstacles in front of them."
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Many teachers spoke about their frustrations with standardized testing. "One of the things I do think is a problem is the constantly shifting landscape of standardized testing and telling us what to do. Leave us alone!" Billy Goodman exclaimed. "Let people teach."
Goodman also voiced frustrations with state-mandated, district-implemented policies such as frequent "student growth objective tests," which teachers design (but the results thereof also impact their rating as teachers). Other teachers discussed what they viewed as excessive benchmarks and documentation.
A teacher from Illinois spoke frankly: "It's so crushing to know that the public doesn't really value what you do… The fact that we have to prove we are fit for these jobs day in and day out on top of public pressures and public personas of teachers in the media, generally speaking, is that we're all lazy bums… [And] frankly, [this language comes] from people who don't have a clue what they're talking about."
"Trying to justify over and over again the work that's being done to people who really have no idea what that work is, is really exhausting." Veroff said.
Why They Teach Anyway
Teachers will continue to educate, regardless of a society that is at best, ignorant, and at worst, hostile to the profession. But their resilience does not preclude them to the right to fair wages, union representation, the resources they need to raise their own children, and the opportunity to provide input into policy decisions in their own field.
For a teacher in New York, the answer to what they loved about teacher was simple: "The kids," they said. "I could complain about the administration or feeling limited by standardized tests or school rules I disagree with, but ultimately my days are joyful because of the kids I spend them with."
"It is amazing to go home at the end of the day with a feeling of being a good influence on someone's life."
"I love feeling purposeful," Parker Veroff told VICE Impact. "I love having a sense of community that's authentic to where I live. Sometimes it's difficult I think to be in New York and have my friendships be with people who are largely operating on the other side of the city. The shiny side. The side that sees a lot of glitz and glam and high paced working life. And I see the other side. The immense poverty and the immense trauma and the ramifications of that directly. But it makes me love where I live even more and feel purposeful."
Veroff's school is a transfer high school that only accepts students who have been held back at least twice before. He continued, "Additionally, I love young people and forging relationships with young people, and getting to see them start. They come in with such a sense of distrust—this is system that has screwed them over time and time again—held them back, let them get lost, but then being in a more supportive environment that's not doing everything perfectly, but really trying, allows a lot of them to break those walls down and develop a love of learning… or at least a sense of like, 'I can do this.'"
A teacher from Illinois answered, "To see a kid get something—you can see the light go on!"
Bryant said, "I love the ability to be creative on a daily basis, and to constantly learn and improve at being a teacher. I also love problem solving, which is a huge aspect of teaching."
For some teachers, including Goodman, McCabe, and Bercik, a love of their subject matter and sharing it with students is most meaningful.
For Johnson, it is enabling students to feel safe enough to express themselves. She remarked, "The thing I enjoy the most about my job—this relates to my position as an ESL teacher—I love when my students feel safe and confident enough to tell me their stories… It is very gratifying when this happens."
"It is amazing to go home at the end of the day with a feeling of being a good influence on someone's life." The teacher from Nevada County, CA said.
"I love the intellectual environment of teaching. I love the challenge—if you are brave enough to take risks. I love that I get to read and think about history and share it with young people. I love challenging young people to confront their own assumptions, to listen to each other, to take risks themselves. I love that I get to offer a reading, an idea, an author, an historical figure, a time period, or a skill to a student that may plant a seed for future growth or change how they see the world." The teacher from Essex County, NJ expressed. "I love watching kids grow up into cool, smart people and knowing I might have contributed a little bit to their growth."
Most people likely remember multiple teachers who did just that. To to make a difference in advocating for fair wages in public education, learn more about your local teachers union and their initiatives, as well as state-level legislation responsible for salary cuts and boosts.