It’s Not Just About the Money

Before education, I used to work in Silicon Valley. Everywhere I looked there were young, energetic, genius, Ivy League engineers all with hopes of becoming the CEO founder of the next great start-up. They all wanted to die rich and were willing to make sacrifices to make it a reality. They had a saying, “Entrepreneurs are the only people in the world willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”

To that, I would respond that teachers are the only people who would work 80 hours a week so that no one else has to.

Over the last few sections, I’ve tried my best to communicate that the difficulties facing Oklahoma teachers are not just about the low salary. I’m not discounting that either. It is a truly mortifying dishonor to know that among our only educational achievements is to have the lowest pay rate among teachers in the entire nation. This creates a hardship for our teachers. There’s no question about that, but at the same time, we also can’t say that a simple pay raise will stop teachers from fleeing the state like the plague.

We have to acknowledge that teachers are suffering in life because of their jobs. They face little security as they can never know how the state will intrude in their education or if their fate will be determined by poorly worded test. They are constantly required to revamp everything they know and throw away whatever few resources they had available. Few observers outside the profession even understand that even in a technology-rich era many of the resources our modern education system was built on no longer exist. Despite the advances we take for granted, nothing has yet been created to replace what is lost for educators that is both meaningful and financially realistic at the scale it is needed. Meanwhile, as resources are constantly taken away the bar must continuously be raised because obviously, the fault is with our teachers. They are blamed for the failures of children, while few people acknowledge that they are held responsible to overcome the realities of a failing state.

How do too many teachers cope? They throw themselves into the job and usually, at the cost of many other aspects of life. There is something to be said for the number of days a year that teachers get off, that it is part of the bargain. Many teachers enter the profession knowing its hardships because of the tradeoff that they get to spend more time with their family. They get to be active and engaged with their community in spite of their low earnings. That’s fine… until it isn’t.

As it stands today, teachers don’t have this necessary work-life balance that is particularly important to an industry dominated by women. People need to ask themselves questions about why so many teachers have hardships in marriage and family life that many people don’t get. It isn’t that every job has their hardships. There is something different and terrible about being a teacher, and particularly so in a place like Oklahoma, outlined far better in this testimonial than anything I could say:

I cannot be both a good mother and a good teacher. 

The name really says it all. This is a real thing for teachers. They feel that they can’t have lives outside of work. If you want honesty, there a lot of people who get fulfillment out of working 80 hours a week, but most teachers don’t. If we are just being rational, their productivity probably isn’t that great when they’re falling asleep grading at 11:30 in the PM, after spending countless hours creating a brand new lesson plan to replace last year’s… which is made up primarily of activities they bought with their own money. Now, add to this a salary that is basically capped around $30,000, then yeah, why would you surprised that good teachers are leaving the state, or worse, the industry? Honestly, many would be fine without more money, but creating a terrible life where they can’t even be there for their families? That’s a problem that needs to be solved.

The pay needs to be increased. It does, but respect needs to be given to the hardships these teacher’s face. That’s not only respect in the form of the kind words of politicians. It’s respecting the fact that most of their hardships are completely preventable, and not due to their own failures nearly as much as they rest at the feet of decisions made by a completely broken bureaucracy devoid of reason, strategy, or self-awareness to how much harm they cause in the name of progress.

Oklahoma really needs to understand this, because as I write, teachers are preparing to strike. Among the demands, many are calling for is a teacher pay raise of as much as $10,000 across the state. With between 40,000 and 46,000 teachers in the state, that amounts to $400 million to nearly half a billion dollars. Frankly, that completely unrealistic demand is going to be wasted if we think it will affect meaningful change in the lives of teachers should nothing else be done. The money isn’t the only thing that holds teachers back and fixing those problems could do just as much to keep teachers in the classroom as throwing money at them. So I have to wonder, is anyone in Oklahoma City or even in many of the local administration offices, asking the necessary question, “How much money could we save on paying teachers by just not making their lives suck so much?”

A close up of a man in a suite with his hands tied up with red tape.

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