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Interview: No Day at the Beach

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What does it mean that in America today, you can find teachers selling stereos or cleaning houses on the side to make ends meet?

For Nínive Clements Calegari, Dave Eggers, and Daniel Moulthrop, coauthors of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (The New Press), it means that teachers deserve more respect—and more money. In their book, they set out to show the financial and professional demands on educators today, underscoring the gap between public perception and reality. Interweaving teachers’ own stories with policy analysis, they depict a profession in crisis, perhaps unsustainable without significant changes in how teachers are paid.

We recently spoke by phone with Calegari, a former social studies teacher who’s the founding executive director of the writing/tutoring center 826 Valencia, to find out more about the book’s background and ideas.

Q: A central theme in your book is that America has a contradictory or incongruous attitude toward teachers. What do you mean by that?

Teachers Have It Easy Cover

A: I think there is tension in that on the one hand, we understand that teachers are the foundation of our democracy, but on the other hand, many people think, “Well, that job’s really not that hard.” The problem is that teaching is the one field about which everyone feels like they’re an expert. People think, “Hey, I was in school, I know what it’s like.” There are a number of examples in the book where teachers encounter this kind of attitude—from their parents or neighbors, for example. People don’t understand how difficult the work is, what is actually happening in the classroom. When you look at fabulous teachers, you see that teaching is highly academic and incredibly complex. You have to be a kind of pedagogical wizard, caretaker, and organizational mastermind all in one—and try to stay peppy all the while.

Q: As your book’s title suggests, many people assume that, all in all, teachers have it pretty good, particularly in terms of benefits and hours. Are they wrong?

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Join a related Teacher TalkBack discussion, “How Much Should Teachers Make?.”

A: People have a misconception about teachers’ hours. Since teachers’ days officially end between 3 and 4 p.m., people think their work days are short—when in fact they have to be at work, and going full throttle, by 7:30 a.m. That’s not even mentioning the evening hours spent grading papers and preparing units and the time spent going to students’ soccer games and plays or mentoring the student newspaper—all the sorts of things good teachers do to be a part of the latticework of kids’ lives.

And that’s only talking about their teaching jobs. We start the book by looking at the phenomenon of how many teachers are having to take second jobs, like selling stereos or working in restaurants, to make up for their low salaries. So it’s a double whammy. Teaching’s not an easy job, and many teachers are working these exhausting second jobs just to cover their basic needs. It’s hard to see how they have it easy.

Q: You say that teachers today face a growing number of restrictions in their work. Why has this happened?

A: There’s an overwhelming lack of trust in schools because a lot of school districts are these huge bureaucracies and people don’t feel connected to what’s going on in them. As a result, politicians want to place restrictions on schools and teachers—in the form of tests, budget restrictions, and curricular guidelines—to make sure they have some control. In one sense, I think this is absolutely understandable: People want have some say over what their money’s being used for. But unfortunately, I think the real solution is going to be in the opposite direction. We need to trust teachers more, give them more creative flexibility and more opportunities to make more money. This is how smart companies treat their employees—by giving them the capacity to thrive.

Incidentally, I think the dramatic growth of the charter school movement may exemplify an area where these competing priorities can dovetail—where people can feel more connected to what’s going on in a school but where, in some cases, teachers face fewer restrictions.

Q: Many commentators have suggested that improving teachers’ working conditions is as important as, or even more important than, increasing their pay. But you clearly see pay as the central issue. Why?

A: None of the authors thinks that teachers’ working conditions are perfect in any way. It’s such an incredibly stressful job. But we think the first objective has to be to make it a sustainable job. Once teachers get onto firm financial footing—on par with other professions—I believe they can work to solve some of the working-condition problems.

There are a number of examples in our book of excellent teachers who couldn’t hang on in teaching, even though they loved it, simply because of the money. It’s just so hard to keep up that pace and the hours required when you could be making more elsewhere. This is especially true as teachers get older and start families.

Q: The model compensation-reform plans you highlight in your book all feature pay-for-performance elements. Do you feel such measures are essential to increasing teacher salaries?

A: It’s absolutely the perfect compromise: Teachers get an opportunity to make more money while communities get a say on the actual goals of teaching and learning. Any teacher who’s really driven would in no way feel threatened by most of models we’ve seen. There are a lot different ways to do performance pay, and the viable models are based on a variety of measures—including seniority. The idea of basing pay on test scores is a really scary thing for teachers because, first of all, standardized tests don’t always measure the things that are really valuable to teachers. But if you look at the performance-pay plans we’ve highlighted, the test scores are really only a small portion of what’s going on, and I think that’s key.

The main thing that these three communities have in common is that representatives from the whole community sat down together and defined how they were going to do this. It wasn’t a top-down thing. Teachers, parents, and administrators all had input on what makes an effective teacher and how these teachers could be rewarded. So our book isn’t an ABC guide to performance pay, but I think it should be an inspiration for other communities.

Q: How do you propose that schools and communities fund increases in teacher pay? Is it realistic that many can or will?

A: If we do a decent job at all in the book, it should help communities see the impact that higher teacher salaries can have on schools and students. In the past, nobody wanted to teach at struggling school like Vaughn [Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles]. But by applying for grants and scraping in every area and giving teachers financial incentives, the school’s principal, Yvonne Chan, was able to build a stable, high-caliber teaching staff. She recognized that happy, smart, and effective teachers mean achieving students. It sounds corny, but she’s giving the families in that community a chance at the American Dream.

Of course, Chan had a lot of flexibility because Vaughn is a charter school. Where her model can be duplicated, it should be. But different communities will need to find different ways. After we published an op-ed piece based on our book in the New York Times, people were sending me ideas of how they could do it in their communities. So we feel like there’s no lack of ideas. Each community just has to sit down and ask, “Where are our resources, where can we cut back, what are our priorities?” But first they have to decide that they want high-quality teachers to be able stay in their schools and afford to live in their communities. That decision has to be made first.

Q: What led you to get involved in this book project with Dave Eggers and Daniel Moulthrop.

A: When I was teaching and things went well, I was happier than—or at least as happy as—anyone on earth. You just can’t have a better experience than having created a really good lesson plan and seeing the results—seeing the kids really sink their teeth into some project and feel incredibly proud of themselves. I just wished that everyone wanted my job. But I realized that you can’t expect people to be dying go into teaching when, if they’re lucky, they’re going to max out at $65,000.

I felt that, as a country, we were not taking advantage of all the potential assets we have—all the talented people who have to leave teaching, or who decide not to go to into teaching in the first place, because of the pay. You just can’t expect people not to go into business or law to earn a teacher’s salary. I also believe it’s totally ludicrous and unjust that many teachers can’t afford to live in the communities where they teach.

I feel like we need to take a step back as Americans and decide what our priorities are and what we want for all the nation’s children.

—Anthony Rebora

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