Published on Real Clear Education, September 15, 2015, by Multi-Classroom Leader Romain Bertrand
This piece is the fifth in a series of monthly pieces by teachers participating in the Opportunity Culture initiative, a movement launched in 2011 by education policy and consulting firm Public Impact. Pilot schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County, N.C,; Nashville, Tenn.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Big Spring, Texas; and Indianapolis are using Public Impact’s new job models and career paths. These “Opportunity Culture” models are aimed at improving the quality of education by extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams, to encourage teacher selectivity, increase opportunities for teachers to advance in their careers without leaving the classroom, promote on-the-job learning, and boost teacher pay — all within regular budgets.
As a huge sports fan and a teacher for 16 years, I first smiled at this SportsCenter parody by Key & Peele. This “Teacher Center,” fantasy replaced the athletes featured on ESPN with everyday teachers.
The piece went viral, reposted by people amused to see our society’s priorities flipped upside-down: What if we gave as much attention and money to our teachers as our athletes?
But after the smile, sadness sank in — because our collective laughter hides our helplessness. We have lost faith in society’s ability to respect the teaching profession. We can’t spend much more time laughing, because our kids suffer.
A new teacher today in North Carolina, where I taught until recently, will make roughly $35,000 a year—and it will take him/her 25 years to get to $50,000. Then, after reaching this “hefty” level, income will be capped for the next five years until retirement—one of the many reasons why our state ranks at the bottom for “teaching appeal.” Nothing to laugh about here.
Educators do not like to speak about their income. We don’t choose teaching for the money. We love our kids, and we are passionate about giving them a chance. Talking about money makes us all feel a bit dirty, as if we were drawn to teaching by something besides our passion. We also worry our kids and their parents might lose respect for our profession if they discover that a starting teacher in North Carolina makes $5,000 less than an entry-level employee at Quick Trip or Trader Joe’s.
How do we cope with all this? We often take a second or third job to make a decent living wage, but the saddest way is by accepting the idea that teaching will not be a long-term career choice. We will do it for a few years, then move on to other professions—ones with less appeal but the income we need to support our families.
I faced this three years ago. We were expecting our second child, money started to get tight, and many people were asking what my next step would be — as if teaching could only be a stepping stone — so I went back to graduate school to study the art of becoming a principal. I learned many invaluable skills, but I also realized that I wanted to continue teaching, at least for a while. I needed to be able to lead from the field, to continue teaching while helping other teachers improve their craft. I was not ready to leave a profession I loved, even though I needed the money and wanted the respect.
So when our school, Ranson IB Middle, became a pilot Opportunity Culture school and I was offered the job of a multi-classroom leader (MCL), I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I could combine in one job three of my passions: teaching, coaching and instructional design, and I would be held accountable for the growth of my colleagues and their students. I designed my schedule to reach more students in multiple ways, including direct teaching (small groups, modeling), co-teaching (with a coaching purpose) and real-time coaching. It took me a year to balance these different levers; by year two, I was able to help our 300 sixth-graders grow in math significantly more than in previous years.
In this new role I also earned 35 percent—$16,000—more. It is a significant bump, one that made me feel more respected as a professional and one that makes many teachers interested in becoming MCLs. Ranson now has seven MCLs, as well as several other roles that extend great teachers’ reach and pay. The school is building a career ladder to attract the best teachers or persuade the many talented ones already there to continue teaching.
Is it the ideal solution? No. Combining these new roles with higher salaries for all teachers is vital; otherwise, we build additional steps in a ladder so broken that it cannot even attract talent to start with. Not every educator will want to become an MCL, but they need to be able to be proud career teachers.
This is a major step in the right direction. It is the first time in years that we created new teaching roles in our schools, paid significantly higher than before, and with an exciting challenge: increasing the quality of students’ instruction while making it easier for all teachers to be the best they have ever been. That’s a challenge exciting enough that for two years in a row, our “Project L.I.F.T.” innovation zone Opportunity Culture schools received 30 times more applicants than Opportunity Culture jobs offered.
Let’s make the “Teaching Center” parody a reality after all: Let’s commit to making the teaching profession attractive and sustainable again.