Paying me $125,000 won’t make me a better teacher

Greek philosopher and head of Aristotle’s school in Lyceum, Theophrastus, once stated, “Time is the most valuable thing man can spend.” This is how a school leader felt in 290 BCE, and nearly 2000 years, the sentiment still stands—little has changed in how we educate our children.

In the US, most people work 250 days a year. Yet we expect our students and teachers to make one full year of academic and social growth with 70 fewer days, missing a huge chunk of time during the summer months and numerous snow days, assemblies, fire drills, standardized testing days, etc. that subtract from the 180 total most districts employ. Furthermore, by most district contracts, teachers are expected to show up 10 minutes before school begins and are allowed to leave 20 minutes after the last bell. During the day, they are given roughly 50-100 minutes of lunch and prep time, most of which is used up by meetings and supporting struggling students. When you take a step back and look at the actual number of hours teachers have to plan, confer, observe other teachers, and reflect upon their practice, it is no wonder that a dollar value placed on quality of the educator is irrelevant if they aren’t given the time to learn and grow into highly effective educators. This kind of time can be easily worked into the current model of school structure by adding 50 more minutes to the school day (essentially one more class period) and providing students with an additional elective period. With a model of adding a school period and an additional elective, the overall cost to a district is far less than what it would be to pay teachers $125,000 and not essentially change the practice of teachers working in silos to plan, assess and review student work with a teacher team.

Before I applied to The Equity Project Charter School in New York City in 2009, I had what I thought was my dream teaching job. I was teaching English at the high school I had graduated from and had made huge inroads to lessening the achievement gap between white and black students. I basically worked with the school administration to develop a schedule that provided me time to check in on students and meet with other teachers. In short, I could not have asked for a better teaching circumstance—with the two exceptions: class periods were only 44 minutes and I was barely making enough money (even though it was my 10th year in the classroom) to support my burgeoning family. Classes were so large, some nearly with 40 students, that it became impossible to work with specific groups for a significant enough time to remediate or push reading and writing levels beyond where the students entered.

I was extremely dismayed by the fact that a new teacher coming into the district would be making only $10,000 less than I was and more senior teachers (15-plus years) were making nearly $40,000 more than I was. Moreover, the district’s union had just ratified a new contract where my pay increase for the next three years was only $400 per year! All of this was more so muted by the fact that I worked really, really, really hard and others, who were paid much more than I was, did not.

I arrived at school every day between 7-7:15am (one hour earlier than the start time) to run a study club for students who struggled with homework and other assignments; I never took a lunch/prep because I was working with other teachers to design projects and grade work together; and I would leave anywhere from 5:30-6:30pm only to go home and work for another 2-3 hours per day. This was how I worked almost everyday for 10 years until I saw the 2008 article in the New York Times about this guy named Zeke Vanderhoek who wanted to start a school that paid teachers $125,000, gave them time to teach and learn from each other, and saw the teachers as the leaders of the school.

I excitedly put the application together, went through the rigorous interview process, and found myself sitting in a room with the eight best teachers out of the 400 who applied. That initial summer, we tossed around ideas, laughed, disagreed, but most importantly, by the end of the summer, we had co-designed a school. Because salaries were not an issue, I felt free to think and challenge the other teachers. Each summer, the staff would meet to refine practice and rethink school policy. This was time dedicated to teacher growth; some of the lessons I learned, I still use today in my role as Special Assistant for Curriculum and Instruction for the Newark Public Schools in New Jersey. Yet the one thing we all bought into was the idea that student growth and our own development was going to be a long term process—a process that did pay off as the initial class at TEP had academic gains that were a year and half beyond their regional peers (as shown in the recent Wall Street Journal article).

As the school year wore on, it became obvious that the $125,000 was actually not a mark of the quality of a teacher in these circumstances. Sure, a $125,000 teacher in an all-white suburban neighborhood could truly deserve her salary as her outcomes are better than other teachers’ in equitable circumstances. Part of the TEP’s charter was to take a representative sample of the Washington Heights neighborhood, and so we had about one-third of the population of the students with some kind of special need/English as a Second Language classification while other students had read the entire Harry Potter series in 4th grade. In the first couple of years, a number of teachers quit mid-year. The rigor of the job got in the way of what was the best part—having the extra time to work with each other to solve problems and think critically about students.

Eventually my desire to move into some kind of administrative role took over my desire to spend another year teaching and I ended up leaving TEP shortly before my 3rd year. However, the relationships I forged with the people who were working, learning and growing alongside me are wholly based in making time to discuss our practice as leaders and teachers. We chose to make time to learn more about our craft and that lesson of time has been the most valuable thing I have taken away from my experience at TEP Charter School. To be honest, most of us would have given up the $125,000 (but not for too much less) for the experiences we had in shaping and developing what has become a truly successful project in providing equity for a largely underserved population of students and an under-appreciated population of phenomenal teachers.

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