Respect (and Pay) Our Teachers, or Lose Them

Guest blog by Megan Boren

Last spring as the pandemic gathered force, my high school chemistry teacher, who was rounding out his 42nd year of teaching, died from COVID-19.

Mr. Metcalfe was loved and honored for his teaching. His funeral was an all-day parade as cars stretched miles down the street into the high school parking lot, where community members waved and shouted condolences to his family.

What will it take to restore respect to the teaching profession, so that future Mr. Metcalfes enter the classroom and master their craft? Our schools face widespread teacher shortages, with declines in teacher-candidate enrollment and an upswell of retirements and resignations. In 2018 all 16 states in the Southern region faced shortages in at least three subjects.

State education budgets may suffer during the pandemic, but the teaching profession cannot absorb the kind of blow it took in the Great Recession. Teacher salaries dropped substantially then, and a decade later they’re still lower on average than before the last recession. Morale has dropped, too, according to surveys.

How can we avert further damage to the teacher workforce with budgets under stress?

We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes in this current climate. Some short-term strategies—emergency certifications, for instance—just worsen the problem. Inadequate preparation is one of the reasons so many teachers are unprepared, inexperienced or planning to leave in the next five years.

Longer term, a key way to attract tomorrow’s educators and keep today’s is to compensate them fairly. Low pay is the number one reason high school graduates offer for not considering a career in teaching. Salaries are also an important element in diversifying the teacher workforce so it better represents the students it serves.

States and schools can start planning now for a long-term overhaul of teacher pay. Salary schedules based solely on years of experience and education convey the message that these are the only attributes of value. Teacher pay should include scheduled cost-of-living raises, and step increases should be reformed to reflect mastery of skills, competencies and effective instruction, rather than simply time served.

We should also start looking at compensation as more than traditional salary plus benefits, including retirement and health insurance.

To help policymakers and educators see a more holistic picture, SREB developed an interactive teacher compensation dashboard of data for the 16 states in the Southern region. We brought together, all in one place, average salaries, health insurance costs, retirement plans—and the resulting take-home pay. (Next month, we’ll add additional data and new context.)

Even with retirement and health benefits, the picture isn’t pretty. Teacher take-home pay is remarkably low overall and doesn’t increase substantially over the course of a career. Teachers nationwide earn 19 percent less on average than professionals with similar levels of education.

Right now, there are still things we can do to show teachers that we recognize their worth.

Some of the ways to do this are relatively low-budget, and some (like simple recognition and gratitude) cost nothing at all.

We need to discuss, along with salary schedules and investment profiles, such things as more generous personal leave and childcare; professional development and peer support groups; opportunities for exercise, mentoring and mindfulness. We should instill a workplace culture focused on instruction, perhaps with more planning periods and smaller classes, one that values teachers for their unique training, skills and gifts rather than as de facto nurses, counselors or mental health providers, as though all those professions were interchangeable.

We know that good teachers are essential: they’re estimated to have two to three times the effect on student learning of any other school factor. Every teacher makes a lifelong impression on thousands of students over the course of a career, helping create whole generations of productive, well-rounded adults.

In these rough budget times, some short-term strategies can show respect, help boost morale and retain some teachers in the short run. But only long-range thinking, and a compensation system that helps teachers improve and rewards increased effectiveness and leadership from the classroom, will head off the coming crisis in teacher quantity and quality.

Mr. Metcalfe, my chemistry teacher, was respected in my hometown, an honored member of the community. What inspires our teacher workforce efforts at SREB is a vision of restoring that pride and stature to the profession. Today’s teachers should be valued for improving their craft as they become better teachers, so that their students—each and every one—learn from a great educator.