My father was a high school teacher for 30 years. My earliest memories are of him returning home in the evening after a long day in the classroom, planning lessons and grading papers late into the night, then heading back to school early every morning. In the summers, he turned his time to another vocation: mowing the lawns of some of the wealthiest people in town, making just enough money to provide for his family.
His story was and still is far from unusual—teachers are 30 percent more likely to work a second job than non-teachers. How could they not? While teaching is rewarding in so many ways, the pay is often insufficient to sustain even a middle-class lifestyle.
It’s no wonder teachers in America feel underpaid and underappreciated. From West Virginia to Arizona, teachers this year had to resort to going on strike to get compensation that befits their tremendous contribution to society.
While we pay lip service to the importance of great teachers and the immensely challenging and critical work they do, too often we don’t provide the compensation or the support to match.
The influence of great teachers on their students’ achievement and well-being is obvious to anyone who has ever sat in a classroom and is confirmed by research. Furthermore, it is expensive to recruit and train new teachers, and school systems across the country face teacher shortages that make it particularly difficult to fill math and science positions.
3 Ways KIPP Is Focusing on Teachers
So, what can we do to reverse this trend and ensure that our teachers can focus on their kids and not mowing lawns? At KIPP New Jersey, we have committed to paying and supporting our teachers like the valued professionals they are, raising salaries to the point where we have one of the highest pay scales of any school system in the state.
To afford higher teacher pay and devote more resources to the classroom, we work hard to reduce administrative costs. Our constant vigilance against the encroachment of bureaucracy allows us to pay our teachers more than those with similar experience even in those districts with higher public funding than ours. It also allows us to provide our teachers with the classroom resources they need to ensure students have an excellent education.
While increasing teacher pay is essential, there are other steps public school systems can take to make our schools great places for teachers to work.
First, we can give teachers more supportive leaders. There is no such thing as a great school that doesn’t have a great leader, and inadequate leadership is one of the primary factors leading to teacher attrition. To find and create better leaders, KIPP invests heavily in management training and leadership pipelines, and we evaluate our leaders based in large part on how well they treat and ultimately retain their teachers.
Second, we can ease teachers into the profession more deliberately. New teachers, who are typically thrown into a classroom with minimal preparation, often have the hardest jobs. So, in our schools, teachers who are new to the profession are brought in as co-teachers, working with a mentor for a year or more before taking on the responsibilities of a head classroom teacher.
By lengthening the on-ramp into the classroom, we reduce the burden on, and improve the performance of, our newest teachers. And supporting great teaching is such a high priority for us that even veteran teachers are given coaching to learn from best practices and reflect on their craft.
Third, we can make sure teacher evaluation practices are fair, consistent and based upon multiple observations and measures. While test scores can be part of this, they should at most be used to complement other important factors, like the observed level of instruction in the class, and how well the teacher works with his or her colleagues.
Teachers Deserve to Be Treated Like Celebrities
This approach to treating our teachers like the professionals they are has led to a great work environment for them and translates to strong results for our students. KIPP New Jersey students are completing four-year college degrees at nearly four times the rate of students from similar economic backgrounds, helping to close the educational opportunity gaps that often plague low-income communities like ours.
Each May, KIPP New Jersey holds an awards show for our teachers, recognizing and rewarding top teachers in front of their families and peers. Just as the Oscars and Grammys celebrate actors and musicians, we use the night to honor the great work of all our teachers in each of our classrooms.
While teachers deserve to be treated as well as we treat celebrities, they also want what every professional wants: To be provided with the tools and support to do their jobs well.
If we paid educators commensurately with the value they provide to society, teachers like my dad could spend more time focused on their students and less time working to put food on the table. Then, and only then, will we be able to attract and retain the great teachers our children deserve.