Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How About a $75,000 Raise?

In the New York Times, Elissa Gootman’s “At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay” has me thinking. The first principal and school founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, plans to pay his teachers a starting salary of $125,000 year. As principal, he will earn $90,000. He is 31 years old, and he taught middle school for three years through Teach for America after graduating from Yale himself. His teachers will put in a longer work day and school year than traditional teachers and will have additional administrative responsibilities. “The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. At full capacity, it will have 28 teachers and 480 students. It will have no assistant principals, and only one or two social workers. Its classes will have 30 students.” Getting a job won’t be easy for interested teachers: “There will be telephone and in-person interviews, and applicants will have to submit multiple forms of evidence attesting to their students’ achievement and their own prowess; only those scoring at the 90th percentile in the verbal section of the GRE, GMAT or similar tests need apply. The process will culminate in three live teaching auditions.”

Okay, so the first thing I did was look up my GRE scores. I consider myself a good teacher, and for all that additional money, I suppose I’m willing to brush up and take the test again to lift my lazy 89th percentile up a notch. To be completely candid, that percentile qualification rubbed me a little wrong. While I think test scores matter, I’m not certain they reflect everything my students have learned, and I’m not convinced my GRE verbal score reflects my capacity to teach language. I suppose GRE scores reflect some level of intellect, however, and the cutoff has to be somewhere, right?

Next, I wondered about working for a 31 year old principal without school management experience who earns less money than the teachers. Won’t the fact that the collective experience of Vanderhoek’s teachers greatly outweighs his own be a problem? I’ve never held a position of authority over my fellow teachers, but my experiences running the occasional workshop (as well as the behavior I’ve observed during faculty meetings) leads me to believe that we teachers can be a tough crowd. Would an additional $75,000 each make us more cooperative or attract people who do what’s best for the school without ego? If the principal is the only administrator in the school, and he is not the highest paid executive officer, will the leadership role still work? Perhaps the entire power structure would be different. As principal, does Vanderhoek still fire teachers or determine class loads and room assignments?

Some of my other considerations are more personal than professional. Would earning $125,000 for my teaching (assuming I could make the cut, of course) give me the same martyr satisfaction that I get from earning $50,000 at the master’s level after thirteen years of experience? (Oh, I’m sorry, is my Catholic showing?) Does the same kind of teacher seek out the big salary? I’d get public school kids with a private school paycheck. In truth, I’ve never dreamed that I could earn that much money without sacrificing my democratic ideal that strong teachers should remain with higher need students in the public school system. If I could afford to truly travel or pay someone else to clean my home, would I have better energy for my students? How much longer is the workday and work year? If someone else cleaned my house but I had to be at school until 6 p.m., would my energy level end up being the same? Would I feel more patient and less frustrated if I could buy better shoes and afford to have my hair professionally highlighted? Would I have to dress better and start getting real haircuts? Am I even motivated by more money?

Maybe the thought of earning over a 100K for my work is so completely unfathomable to me that I can’t properly think about it any more than I can imagine sprouting wings and flying to work. With that pay scale, I start to think that teaching would require the kind of “on-site” time dedication other jobs that pay 100K require. Currently, I do lots of my work from home; I grade essays at 5 a.m. or on Saturday afternoons while I watch my son play in the yard, and I email reminders to students on Sunday evenings while watching television. I work many hours “off site,” planning lessons in my head while I drive or browsing for articles and topics on the Internet. If the 100K requires more hours in the school building, I’m not sure teaching would permit me to be the kind of parent I’m striving to be. Then again, who knows? Maybe I could work part-time for more than my current full-time salary. (I have to say, I find that much more tempting. If I had fewer students and more time, I dream I could fix the world, one five paragraph essay and close critical reading assignment at a time.) As the old joke goes, “They say money won’t fix education. I say, ‘Let’s try it once!’” Good luck, Principal Vanderhoek. I’m very interested to see what this experience yields. May it benefit both students and teachers…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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