DeFrates column: It’s no mystery — we need to pay teachers more
According to the Denver Post, nearly 3,000 teachers will be needed to fill empty positions in Colorado for the 2017-18 school year. Durango’s school district is currently missing 31 positions, and some schools in the eastern part of the state have gone years without a math teacher.
With this in mind, state legislators and the Board of Education have decided to host a number of town-hall style meetings to discover possible reasons and share solutions for this shortage. They are hoping to hear various concerns and potential solutions in order to come up with a plan of action.
And I’m sorry, I just have to stop here because, really? Is it an actual mystery why qualified individuals are not staying, or even entering the profession anymore? Are there elected officials sitting around scratching their heads, wondering why so few teachers stick it out in the state?
If that is the case, dear House Rep, Congressman or concerned citizen, if you are sincerely wondering what makes our teachers, myself unfortunately included, look for alternate careers, let me ask you a question: What kind of a salary would you need in order to be content working in a high-stress environment, 50-60 hours a week, where it was made clear that respect for your profession was at an all-time low, and you were being told what to do by people who have no background in your field? And don’t forget that you would constantly have to validate your own effectiveness with complex evaluation procedures.
How would you respond when you realized that you and your family could no longer afford to live anywhere near the communities in which you worked? What if your benefits were slashed or salary frozen because of high-level institutional incompetence? Would you stick it out because you were self-sacrificing and believed in achieving a certain level of “martyrdom” in your lifetime?
Or would you look around and realize, very quickly, that your incredible skill set could garner a much more comfortable wage in another field? In fact, when you realized that you were being told to create multiple qualitative and quantitative evaluations that allow for immediate feedback and procedural implementation, and that in most professions, this is the job of highly paid consulting firms, you might look at their compensation package and raise an eyebrow.
Or what if your resume included expertise on effective peer-to-peer collaboration, engaging diverse audiences as well as mentoring? What if you could claim advanced organizational skills coupled with timely feedback? Leadership ability and communication? Logistical coordination for major events where no one present listens to any directions, yet still achieves a positive outcome?
Or maybe you would just see that teachers in 46 other states make, on average, a significantly higher salary in places with much lower costs of living.
Again, just in case you were actually wondering. But yes, let’s have some town hall meetings. Maybe the facilitators at these meetings will be really good at making people feel like their voices are heard. But if the conclusion reached is anything other than the fact that compensation is the major factor in retaining and attracting qualified teachers, then all those meetings will just be another publicity stunt by politicians.
Of course, a few other issues should come up: professional respect, effective support systems and less testing. But you could get those answers from a five-minute conversation with any second-year teacher.
To anyone who is resisting the idea of paying teachers more because it never helps to “just throw money at a problem,” then you have spent zero time in a classroom in the last decade, and are willfully ignoring all the other problems we have thrown money at in the education system in recent years.
Teachers are not the problem; they are the solution.
Imagine if we paid teachers for their experience and expertise at a level similar to other, highly qualified, intensely evaluated professions? Take a look at the example provided by Montezuma County on the Utah-Colorado border. In a final effort to retain teachers, after struggling with incredibly high turnover rates and shortages, administrators in Four Corners School District created the position of lead teacher who would take in a yearly wage starting at $80,000.
Their duties include mentoring new staff, professional development planning, and data analysis, all of which are expected of nearly every classroom teacher in our state, starting year one. In the three years this program has been implemented, only one teacher has left the program. This district was honest about the challenges facing their staff, which are significant due to many factors, and realized that their best investment would be in those who actually spend time, face-to-face, teaching students. Their school grade has jumped an incredible three marks, from an F to a C in that time period.
In contrast, according a recent study by Great Education Colorado, we rank 50th in teacher compensation and 47th in per pupil spending when accounting for regional cost differences.
So why are our state leaders acting surprised that teachers aren’t staying? Because if they were honest, then they would have to realize that we send money to all the wrong places. They would have to rewrite a tragically mixed up tax-code and admit that their priorities have been deeply misaligned for the last few decades.
Our teachers are no longer the time-card punching, tenured curmudgeons of myth. Colorado teachers are dynamic, highly qualified, trained and constantly evaluated experts. Colorado needs to put up or shut up about teacher salaries instead of hiding behind another half-hearted attempt to divert our attention to other, ineffective solutions.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer, educator, mother and adventurer. Her column appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month.