It's hard to recommend teaching as a profession
My holiday tradition for several years was to go backpacking overnight between Christmas and New Year’s with Boy Scout alums from my days as scoutmaster. For the last several years, we seem to get a better turnout if I host a party at my house instead. This year, one of the young men, who is in his mid-20s, and I discussed whether he should go into teaching. This would have been an easy discussion years ago, but now it is not so simple.
I told him that when I first starting teaching in Cleveland Heights in the late 1980s, there was an unwritten social contract that does not exist anymore. I knew that I would have to wait a long while before I was paid as much as classmates going into other fields with similar education. The trade-offs were good health care, security after earning tenure, predictability in pay, a decent retirement after 30 years, and a chance to work with young people. Additionally, I could count on 9 or 10 weeks off in the summer to go to school, paint houses, or take trips (but would not have the ability to vacation outside of school-designated holidays). Being a teacher at that time was a good and respected profession.
I have known this particular young man since he was a toddler. His older brothers were all Scouts in my troop, and I taught him and one of his brothers at Heights High. He is bright and energetic, spent time working with inner-city youths, knows how to relate and guide youngsters, and would be a great teacher. I had to tell him that most of the benefits of teaching don’t exist anymore.
Teaching salaries here and around the country have stagnated and are especially low in charter schools. Many districts tie pay to student achievement, making it difficult to justify working with [those] students in poverty who predominantly score lower on standardized tests. The same student growth measures also help determine if a teacher is effective or not. This translates into loss of tenure protection in many places (as I discussed in the January Heights Observer).
In addition, teachers have never had career portability. In most professions, a person can improve a situation by moving to a different company. Public school teachers lose money moving between school districts if they are experienced. State law only requires a school district to pay for five years of experience, so it is virtually impossible for teachers to transfer to another district without taking a huge economic hit.
Teachers can no longer retire with a livable pension at 30 years. The retirement system is requiring newer teachers to teach at least 35 years, and reach age 60 at retirement. This may change again, giving retirees less in pension benefits. Health care in retirement is a costly benefit, and may be reduced further. When I started my career in teaching, retiree health care was covered fully. So, we work longer, contribute more, and get less when we retire.
Summers are consumed with requirements to get “professionally developed” through this or that program. Summer is also the best time to take required classes for renewal of five-year teaching licenses.
Teaching is no longer respected as it once was. The narrative around “failing schools” and teachers being responsible for society’s ills is rampant. Today’s teachers are forced to work differently than we did in the past to satisfy requirements that have little to do with students and learning. It is hard work that keeps getting tougher.
So, it is hard to recommend that young people consider going into teaching today. We are just starting to see teacher shortages around the state. I imagine many teachers are having conversations like mine with former students.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.