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Teaching In America: The Impossible Dream

Many public school teachers today must work two jobs to survive, and can't afford to buy homes or raise families. A new book asks why we treat our teachers so poorly.
 
 
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The new book Teachers Have It Easy , which collects roughly 200 interviews with educators from around the country, couldn't have a more ironic title. Co-written by former teachers Daniel Moulthrop and Nínive Clements Calegari, and author Dave Eggers ( A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ), the book highlights the bleak reality that not only are America's teachers grossly underpaid, but that teaching is simply not a sustainable profession it its current form.

Through compelling accounts, Teachers Have It Easy dispels one of the biggest myths about teaching in public schools -- that the paltry salaries educators receive are adequate compensation for summer vacations and "shorter work days." Instead, the book paints a Dickensian picture of our educational system, in which teachers routinely work 10-12 hour days that don't end when the dismissal bell rings.

The idea for the book arose from conversations between Eggers and Calegari, co-founders of the non-profit 826 Valencia, which offers tutoring and writing workshops for youth. (A new center, 826NYC, recently opened in Brooklyn.)

"The idea was Dave's to begin with," Moulthrop told me. "When he was in his twenties, he had friends, including his sister, who were teachers and loved their work. For them it was the best job on the planet. A few years later, they all quit because of the money. It was just a travesty."

Eggers' friends were not the only ones who discovered how impossible it can be to eke out a living as an educator. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, as noted in the book, found that 46 percent of teachers leave within their first five years. Such high turnover and instability undoubtedly wreaks havoc on public schools and their respective communities, in which teachers play a vital role.

"If teachers are just leaving at the peak of their game," Moulthrop says, "their students were ill-served by the system."

While Moulthrop is a noted journalist, and Eggers' reputation is well known in the literary world, Teachers Have It Easy succeeds because it allows the underpaid, unappreciated teachers to speak for themselves.

Take Jonathan Dearman, who was the only African American teacher at San Francisco's Leadership High School, a public charter school. Dearman, like so many public school teachers, was beloved

because he devoted everything to a job he loved. He often worked 70- to 80-hour weeks because it was "the only way he could come close to feeling successful." In addition to teaching, Dearman set up an informal support club for minority students, in some cases becoming a surrogate parent.

"There was a teacher who was integral to the culture of school and the community," Moulthrop said of Dearman. "He set absolutely the highest standards ... kids failed his class and yet they still did all of the work all year long."

After five years as a teacher, however, Dearman, who has a master's degree in education, was making just over $40,000 a year. As is often the case with public school teachers, Dearman neglected his wife and kids to raise other people's children. He also accrued $15,000 in credit card debt, most of which was spent on supplies for the classroom. At times, Dearman even sacrificed his own health because his world revolved around his students. Once he forgot his daily insulin injection and ended up spending a night in the hospital. Still, he made it to school the next morning in time to teach all day.

Now a realtor, Dearman makes about $80,000 -- double the annual salary he earned as a teacher -- in only two months. Yet it was his newfound liberty that Dearman recalled as being the major upside to leaving the field of education. "That was one of the first things I realized when I got out of teaching," he said. "I can leave when I want to. I can go to the bathroom when I want, I can go get a cup of tea when I want, and I can eat when I want. I couldn't do that when I was a teacher."

As Teachers Have It Easy points out, about 20 percent of public school teachers have to take a second job because they want to continue teaching at all costs. Rachel Cross, who teaches history and algebra at Oneida Middle School in Oneida, Tenn., had to clean houses for a year when tutoring and teaching summer school didn't offer enough supplemental income. As a single mother, she frequently brought her son along. "I have cried several times," Cross confessed, "and it's like, you're on your knees [cleaning] this toilet, and you're almost praying, praying that it'll get better, that you won't have to do this forever. But at the same time, you've got to be thankful, because this'll be an extra $30. It's a tank of gas, or it may be part of your co-pay if your child gets sick."

After a while, the exhausting hours and second jobs, coupled with the added headache of taking more courses at night in order to reach a higher salary level, take their toll on our teachers. The book explains that another major reason so many teachers leave the profession early on is to marry and start families. With the cost of raising a child approximately $10,000 per year, a teacher's pathetic salary simply will not do.

Teachers Have It Easy also explores the effects that the high turnover of teachers has on students. The book contends that the majority of the seven million Americans who are either in prison or are on parole had problems that can be traced back to their educational experience.

To back that assertion, the authors cite the Perry Preschool Study, in which 58 impoverished children from Michigan who were deemed likely to fail in school were given the opportunity to attend a high-quality preschool with the best educators before matriculating to Perry Elementary, a local school. The study also tracked another 65 students who did not attend preschool before entering Perry. Not surprisingly, a larger percentage of the students who attended the top-quality preschool performed better in standardized tests, graduated from high school, and went on to lucrative careers.

"If you take the Perry example and just did it in elementary schools," Moulthrop exclaims, "let's say you couldn't afford to do it everywhere, but just in elementary schools ... my god, who knows what could happen!"

With a direct link between the school drop-out rate and the number of individuals who end up in the penal system, it would behoove society to pay teachers more money in order to lure the best educators and ensure that more students go on to become positive contributors to society.

There are other issues that continue to plague public schools besides low teacher pay. Overcrowded classrooms, a critical shortage of resources and a pervasive lack of respect for teachers from both students and parents are just a few of the problems that make teaching in public schools so difficult. Moulthrop feels, however, that those issues are hard to separate from the desperate need for higher salaries.

"The quality of chalkboards, where the bathrooms are, where the desks are, all of that is profoundly important," he says. "We decided to focus on teacher pay, though, because it's a clear example of the deficiencies in our educational policy. If payroll is where you're going to be spending the lion's share of the education budget, you really want to be attracting the top people to the profession."

Calegari, who taught for over a decade in three different public schools around the country, firmly shares Moulthrop's sentiment. "We can't base our democracy on altruism alone," she says. "People need to be paid for their awesome work."

To that end, the book cites examples of salary reforms in several school districts. Younger teachers in particular seem more willing to be paid for the work they do in the classroom, as opposed to the current salary structure that is based on the number of years in the school system or the number of credits a teacher has earned beyond a degree.

The authors of Teachers Have It Easy all believe teachers are true heroes. Along with Calegari and Eggers, Moulthrop hopes that the book will raise awareness about just how difficult it is to be an overworked, underpaid teacher.

Zack Pelta-Heller, a graduate student at The New School, taught school for two years in Manhattan. His mother taught in the Philadelphia public school system for over 35 years.