We Don’t Value Our Teachers: Here’s Why

“Teaching is like being stuck in a bad marriage. You’re only in it because of the kids.”


The first time I heard this quote, I chuckled. It was funny (though there’s nothing inherently funny about being trapped in a failing marriage or comparing the profession of education to it).


But still, I laughed.


Now, fast forward a few more years and the validity of this quote still rings true  - yet still, it is no laughing matter.


Being in the profession for over 13 years, I have heard time and time again from people in other professions, “Teachers are so important,” or “We value our teachers so much! There’s nothing like a good teacher.”  The more I hear these comments (and I then stop to look around at our current condition), the more I want to respond, “You think this yet other signs tell a different story. And you know you would never trade places with me.”


Because deep down, we really don’t value our teachers.


Here's why.


What you value, you compensate, support and appreciate. Most educators I know don’t enter the profession because of the salary. I thought I was aware of the opportunity cost of entering into this field but after thirteen years of service, I didn’t know it would be this profound.


I’m not into comparisons but I have two examples that make this awareness crystal clear. If I’m going to compare myself with someone, the most comparable person on this earth is my very own twin sister. We have had the same upbringing (that included the arts and traveling), both attended top schools (I’m a Bruin and she attended UCI) and we have our masters from top universities as well. We both work hard and have been celebrated within our professions. She’s been promoted numerous times and chosen for leadership positions within her company and I have won many teachers awards and been chosen to participate in selective opportunities around the nation.


With those constants in place, we both started out in 2003 with the same pay, hovering around $49, 000 a year. Fast forward thirteen years and BAM!!!! Her salary has more than doubled my salary and she is nicely positioned within the six-figure range – a range I can only see with binoculars because I’m so far away from it.


Our only difference? She majored in physics and entered the private sector, whereas I studied education and went into the public service sector.


“Well of course Genein”, you say, “She’s a scientist and we all know scientists make way more money than elementary public school teachers.”


Yea, I know but the stagger is significant even when comparing other public employees, state or otherwise. Here’s another example:


Take my OTHER sister. Once again, same upbringing though she’s six years younger than me. She attended UCI as well and after a few years of doing social work at low pay, she decided to return to school last year and obtain a second bachelors degree in nursing. It turns out she found her niche and graduated at the top of her class!


The major difference? Her salary is basically the same as mine is currently.

She is not even A YEAR into her profession and I am thirteen years into my profession and we basically make the same amount.


Please understand. While I am overly ecstatic for my sisters who are killin’ it (and my little brother who’s a NASA mathematician – I won’t even start to discuss his earning potential), I am sadden that people who choose to enter the education profession take a HUGE financial hit for their choice of wanting to help our youth become all that they can be. And the younger the child we work with, the lower the pay. I know preschool teachers who make $25,000 a year. That’s barely above the poverty line for a family of four.


One 2nd grade teacher in Arizona was so fed up with the dismal pay, she shared her paystub with the world to show that after taxes, she only sees a little more than $600 every two weeks! Another teacher in the news clip shouted that she only grosses $44,000 a year after teaching for 22 years!


And we wonder why so many people are leaving the profession and why it’s so difficult to get top candidates to ENTER and STAY in the classroom. It’s financial suicide for the amount of education, degrees and hard work needed to be a great educator. With the rising cost of living, especially in places like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, it is unsustainable.


But we stay because of our love for our students. 



Besides the enjoyment of inspiring children and shaping the future, one factor that educators claim that somewhat off counters the low wages is the decent healthcare packages and retirement benefits. That pension, at least in California, is a nice additional perk for 30 years of dedicated work to those little ones.


Well this too is now on the chopping block.


Last year, Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) reported that within the next 10-15 years, more than 50% of their operating budget will be directed to retirees’ pension and healthcare costs, unless significant changes are made today. FIFTY PERCENT!! That’s half of the funds – going to people who aren’t even working for the district anymore!


This mainly is because

1) People (primarily the baby boomers) are living longer

2) Healthcare costs are rising

2) We, as a nation, are sick! More people are living longer with chronic illnesses (i.e. diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, etc)

This cannot be sustained! Therefore, some major adjustments are bound to happen. Gone (or soon to be gone) are those glorious days of full healthcare coverage for teachers and their dependents, current and those in retirement! Cough Cough? Pay up!! A gold watch and a trip around the world? I don’t think so!

But we stay because of our love for our students.

LAUSD Board Meeting -> Health Benefits Crisis




The original plan? Teach with passion for 25-30 years and retire with 60% - 70% of my salary. A few years ago, the average CA teacher retired at 62 and received a pension of about $4000 a month plus healthcare. Not as good as some pensions but not totally bad either! But before our national economic crisis, CAL STRS could sustain this for our 800,000 California teachers. But after the dot.com burst in 2000, and especially after the recession in 2008, our second-largest public pension fund in the country faced a $71-billion shortfall that worsens by $22 million every day, according to pension officials.


Here’s the kicker -> Our CAL STRS system will most likely be broke by 2055.


‘Jack Ethnes, the CEO of the CAL STRS reports, “Without corrective action, this plan will be insolvent in 30 years," when a young teacher hired today would probably retire. At that point, the full cost of teachers' pensions would fall squarely on taxpayers' shoulders (aka YOU), raising the specter of tax hikes or cuts in government services to compensate.’


Or the burden, like those paying into social security, will mostly fall on us teachers. We teachers will need to do extra saving into our own retirement accounts, like 403B’s and Roth IRA’s, to supplement or replace our ‘golden goose’ of a STRS pension.


I have been warning teachers about this for at least a decade. If you are not putting extra money into your own retirement account, you’re increasing the risk of being broke and eating cat food after dedicating your entire life in service to others.

What an awful place to be.


Nevertheless, buyer beware. Or rather 'investor beware'. There are so many investments companies out there that know we need to invest but also know most teachers are ignorant in the area of financial investments and therefore proceed to take advantage of us. They entice us to sign up for convoluted packages with hidden high fees and offer us products that benefit them more than us. Shame on you!


My school had a company come to us, with donuts and everything, who offered 403B plans with fees as high as 2%!!! So if I had a nest egg of $100,000, every year they would ‘charge’ me $2000 just to manage the account! Once again, shame on you!


A difference of 1% in fees could end up being a difference of over $200,000 in loss investments after thirty years of saving. Ignorance is costly. It’s the questions we don’t ask that end up costing us a fortune.


I then went on a major research spree and found other investment options, like TIAA, CalSTRS2 and Vanguard that had much lower fees, some hovering around the 0.3% range. Much better. Fees make ALL the difference with choosing the right account but they don't want us to know this.


But we stay because of our love for our students.



I’ll end this rant by saying if we value teachers then we’ll place current teachers in positions of policy making authority on the local, state and national levels. In Ted Dintersmith’s book, What School Could Be, he attempts to examine how teachers don’t have much authority in shaping what our schools look like. Yet it is we who are on the front lines. It is we who are in daily interaction with our students. We see the world changing and would like to see our classrooms reflect what our students will need in order to succeed. Ted notes,


"In U.S. education, non-experts tell experts what to do. Priorities are set by legislators, billionaires, textbook and testing executives, college admissions officers and education bureaucrats. These forces, perhaps unintentionally, impede real change in our schools. They push kids to study what’s easy to measure, not what’s important to learn."


The SAT is a good example of this. This test shows no link to student success or professional or personal fulfillment yet is thrust upon our students year after year, stressing them out. Those who can afford extra SAT tutoring excel while students from low income households lose that edge. Who really wins here? The testing companies do, that’s who.


Though there have been some grassroots organizations (like TeachPlus) that help teachers obtain an authoritative voice while allowing them to stay in the classroom, we still don’t have a power seat at many of the state and national tables. We can’t even get into the room. This is another way of saying that as a nation, we really don’t really value teachers and their perspective in moving our national educational system forward.


This is what we hear, “If you don’t have money (which we don’t due to our low pay) and if you have no political clout – we don’t care what you think.”


But we stay because of our love for our students.


I don’t believe in stating a problem without offering a solution but these solutions will have to come from more than a lone teacher voice from the hills of Southern California. There needs to be a collective force ready to demand change. As our previous leaders pointed out, “Change isn’t willingly given by the oppressors but must be demanded by the oppressed.”


We need to see higher teacher compensations, we need to have more seats for in-classroom teachers on policy boards, and we need to increase financial literacy and investment education for teachers, especially those just now entering the profession.


We need to value teachers in a way that truly VALUES them and their dedication to our students.