In light of recent budget shortfalls, strikes, and contentious negotiations between school boards, superintendants, and district unions, one thing Oregonians need to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, teaching is a job.
Some spuriously characterize the job as wildly over compensated, citing PERS payments to famous coaches and administrators, health care benefits, and a 9-month work schedule as evidence of the glorious, decadent lifestyle accorded to Oregon’s teachers. This, teacher’s critics say, is the reason Oregonians don’t want to invest in our schools. Regardless of how teaching is mischaracterized, however, it is still a job, and the people performing that job know its realities much better than self proclaimed “experts” with political agendas.
So what, exactly, does reality look like for an Oregon teacher? The average teacher makes around $50,000 a year, and will receive less than $36,000 a year in retirement from PERS. In fact, only 17% of all PERS employees receive more than $50,000 per year as a retirement pension, and very few of them are teachers. So the idea that teachers are earning six figure salaries, and retiring rich on the public dime, is just plain wrong.
What about that cushy work schedule teachers enjoy? The fact is that in Oregon, most districts sign their teachers to a 190-day contract (most teachers would love to work and teach more days—but they’d also like to be paid for them), so in the first place, teachers aren’t paid for a full year—they’re paid specifically for the number of days they work. Moreover, teachers are paid for an 8-hour day, but due to the difficulty of the job, most teachers work closer to 50 hours a week, if not more. So, in point of fact, Oregonians should feel pretty good about the money they spend on teacher salaries—in general, teachers work more than their contract demands.
How about job security and status? Over the last 10 years, Oregon K-12 education funding has been reduced from 44.8% to 38.2% of the overall state budget. Oregon has lost 9% of its classroom teachers during that time span. In addition to lay-offs, many Oregon districts are cutting days, increasing class sizes, and freezing or slashing pay and benefits. Perhaps this is why a recent MetLife national poll found (for Oregon’s educational decline has been repeated throughout the U.S.) that in just the last two years, teacher job satisfaction has plummeted from 59% to 44%. Remember, teaching is a job: a job where pay, benefits, and employment security are in serious jeopardy.
Teaching in Oregon is also a job that requires a masters degree. Earning that degree is both difficult and expensive, even at a state university. It also costs money to license and relicense with the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which means teachers spend yet more money to take ongoing education classes in order to meet those requirements. The requirements are necessary: they ensure that our teachers are highly skilled and qualified individuals. However, at the end of the day, we have to remember that teaching is a job: a job with significant and expensive barriers to entry.
The underlying point in all of this cuts two ways. The first, and most obvious point, is that teachers are under no social obligation to sacrifice pay and benefits in order to teach. Ultimately, like employees at any job, teachers work because they receive compensation. If that job no longer offers the same level of compensation, or if working conditions deteriorate, workers have the right to quit, and if they’ve organized a union, that union has the right to strike. And it is often the case that when teachers strike, they are fighting for conditions that will benefit their students as well.
The second point is that if we, as a large segment of our population seems interested in doing, continue to marginalize teachers, while at the same time cutting their compensation, work days, and many of their colleagues, are we really so naïve as to think that anyone is going to want to teach in the future? Remember, teaching is a job, and if we want good teachers, that job has to be appealing.
Right now, it isn’t.