Will Teach for Food: How Teachers Have Gone From Thriving to Thrifting

Posted by Tuesday Bassen and Denise Grollmus

GOOD 026, Beg Borrow or Steal, Magazine
Whenever I visit my family in Los Angeles, my mother and I invariably gather around the backyard table at my grandmother’s house to correct papers in the late-afternoon sun. As my mom makes her way through a pile of college blue books, I tackle a stack of freshman English papers. Sometimes my grandmother, now 90 years old, comes out to observe our work, admiring the way we scribble comments into the margins and scratch out split infinitives. The sight almost always functions as a cue, prompting her to recite the now-familiar tale of her long career as a teacher.

When she tells it, the story usually begins something like this: As a girl born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1921, she had only one dream—head to Hollywood, become an actress, and marry Errol Flynn. Even during World War II, when the smallest goals seemed unattainable and her time was spent planning her family’s escape from the ghetto, she continued fantasizing about her debut on the silver screen.
 
She traveled a difficult road—first escaping the Holocaust, then suffering through a devastating divorce when she later lived in Chile—but her dream was still alive when she immigrated to Los Angeles in 1965. Upon arriving, she immediately applied for a slew of jobs that would allow her to afford the mortgage payments on the house she’d purchased, which was so close to LAX that it rattled whenever a plane took off. On a whim she filled out an application for a secretarial position at Universal Studios.
 
At this point in the narrative, she always makes sure to add, “You know, I spoke five languages and I was quite attractive at the time.” Sometimes she has a photo on hand as evidence—a stunning portrait that shows off the best of her delicate, dark features, framed by a bleached-blonde Marilyn Monroe coif. At less than $500 a month, the job at Universal was all hers, they said, and she took it.
 
But it didn’t take long for the veneer of Hollywood to wear dull. After three years, my grandmother was through. It was a lunch in 1968 with one of the only women in power at the studio that helped make her decision.
 
“How old are you, Christine?” the woman asked.
 
“Forty,” my grandmother lied (she was actually 47).
 
“Time to get out while you still can,” she said. “This business is only good to those who are young.”
 
Options for a college-educated, single mother in 1960s America were limited. Women were still being groomed for secretarial work, nursing, home economics, and teaching. It wasn’t so much that my grandmother yearned to be a teacher, but it was the most economically viable option. In 1968, being a teacher actually paid. According to the National Education Association, female teachers earned 12.7 percent more than college-educated females in other positions throughout the 1960s. And where the average salary was $5,571, the average teacher’s salary was $7,423.
 
That same year, my grandmother enrolled in the master’s program in education at the University of Southern California. Before she’d even finished her degree she secured a full-time teaching position in the Los Angeles Unified School District as an English teacher, developing special curricula for the district’s new bilingual education program, which she helped build from scratch. My grandmother had found her niche. Soon, she was earning five times her secretary’s salary doing a job she actually loved. I can’t remember a single moment from my first 18 years when she wasn’t talking about her students or preparing lesson plans. Whenever I’d go shopping with her, we’d have to pile the groceries under my legs and on my lap, because the backseat of her red 1980 Ford Mustang was so overrun with aniline purple ditto copies, overhead projector sheets, and mounds of dry erase pens. Her work was her vocation, a perfect fit for a woman who understood the power of language and the delicate situations of her students—new arrivals in a foreign land looking for better lives.
 
She worked for $30,000 a year, enough to provide her family a comfortable life, until she was 71, at which time the district was looking to cut costs and offered many of its older teachers—the best paid—early retirement deals. Little did she know that it was the beginning of the end. My grandmother says she didn’t want to retire just yet, but the package was a good deal. On top of medical benefits, the district averaged her salary from her last three years of work and promised to match that, plus an annual cost-of-living increase, for the rest of her life. In exchange for taking care of Los Angeles’ children, the city promised to take care of her. And it’s always kept its promise.
 
At the end of the story, my mother and I always shake our heads in disbelief at my grandmother’s good fortune. She got out just in time, we think, right as the slash in teachers’ salaries was underway. By the 1970s, starting female teachers were already making 3.5 percent less than women in other fields. In 1984, the average public school teacher’s salary was $22,400, forcing many to take second jobs to supplement their income. At least in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teachers could still look forward to a pension similar to the one my grandmother received—the same retirement deal given to members of Congress. But even that is changing. In February, L.A. Unified announced it was laying off 5,000 teachers on top of renegotiating their current pension plan, which is already riddled with hidden fees, taxes, and other costs.
 
As teachers in today’s world, where public education budgets are constantly being cut and poorly paid adjunct positions have largely replaced full-time instructor positions at most universities, my grandmother’s story taunts my mother and me with a quality of life and financial security that no longer exists for most teachers.
 
* * *

Unlike my grandmother, I entered the professional world in a time when women had many choices. “Follow your dreams and the money will come,” my father always said. We were told, especially as girls, to aim high. We could be presidents of the United States, Nobel Prize–winning chemists, the next Great American Novelists—whatever our hearts desired.

Despite these affirmations, more than 75 percent of today’s teaching force is female—an even higher percentage than in 1940, when teaching was one of the few career options for women. Just because the doors to other professional worlds opened up to us didn’t mean we wanted out of education, even as starting salaries have been whittled down below the poverty line. In my case, it’s because teaching is precisely what my heart desires. It is an opportunity to make an immediate difference and to be intellectually engaged with the world. In many ways, by choosing teaching, I followed my parents’ advice exactly.
 
After graduating from Oberlin College in 2003, I went straight into journalism, another industry that was in the middle of capsizing just as I got my first full-time job. Six years later, shortly after the paper where I worked was closed down, I finally surrendered and followed in the footsteps of my grandmother and mother.
 
In 2009, I began my journey back to grad school with the intention of becoming a college writing instructor. I only applied to universities that could offer me a full tuition waiver and teaching assistantships, because, like most Americans, I couldn’t eat the cost of more school, and I needed teaching experience. I settled on Pennsylvania State University, where I’d be teaching Freshman Composition and Introduction to Creative Writing and working as a writing tutor. In exchange, I’d receive a stipend and an education that would hopefully lead to a teaching career, though I knew better than to expect a full-time contract on graduation day.
 
Even before I started applying to graduate school, I was often reminded that teaching wasn’t the best route to job security (or a job at all), especially at the college level. I’d heard as much when going into journalism, too. In their recent book, Higher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus estimate that, between 2005 and 2009, America pumped out 100,000 doctoral degrees, while only 16,000 people landed full-time professorships. And, despite the fact that college enrollment continues to increase steadily, along with tuition rates (I happen to teach at the most expensive public university in the United States, where the tuition went up 4.9 percent this year), I also knew that the majority of jobs being offered were for poorly paid adjunct positions that only sometimes offered benefits. Still, I didn’t need to read the Chronicle of Higher Education to realize the sad state of the teaching profession. All I had to do was ask my mom.
 
* * *

Around the same time that my grandmother was getting situated as an ESL teacher, my mother was trying to figure out her own career path. She’d fallen in love with linguistics while completing her undergraduate education at UCLA, then followed one of her professors to USC, where she found her passion for teaching non-native speakers. Like my grandmother, my mother also has a long, complicated history with language learning. English is her third language. Born to Polish refugees in Chile, she moved to the United States at age 12. At the time, there was no such thing as ESL in American schools. Non-native speakers were often placed in special-education classes with severely disabled students. My mother wanted to be a part of changing that.

In 1982, she got a job at a small community college in the Inland Empire, where she helped build its ESL program from the ground up. If anything makes me nostalgic for my childhood, it’s the thought of my mother teaching. Growing up, I loved helping her create fill-in-the-blank worksheets based on lyrics from popular songs—Paula Abdul, Rick Astley, and Wilson Phillips were my top picks. She’d even let me crank the ditto machine myself. In the summer, she took me along to her classes. I’d sit in the back, reading my Ramona books, always proudly aware of her presence at the head of the class.
 
Ten years later, our family moved to Akron, Ohio, where my father got a full-time job after being unemployed for nearly two years, during which time we’d subsisted on welfare and my mother’s salary. My mother quickly got a part-time instructor position in the English
Language Institute at the University of Akron, but full-time jobs were harder to come by. ESL teachers weren’t in high demand in Northeast Ohio. And despite the fact that she’d taught ESL at the college level for more than a decade, she wasn’t qualified to teach at the secondary level because of Ohio’s teaching credential laws. Another decade later, my parents divorced, and my mother could no longer depend on a supplementary income. That’s when she decided to head back to school, opting for another master’s degree so that she could teach high school Spanish. It proved to be a costly move—one she is still paying for.
 
My mother worked her way through school, accruing nearly $40,000 in student loans. She secured a long-term sub position as an ESL tutor in a public high school, but it couldn’t hire her full-time without official credentials. Getting there presented a paradox: The Ohio Board of Education required her to do hundreds of hours of unpaid practice teaching, yet she couldn’t afford to work for free. And why should she have to, after two decades of work as a college instructor?
 
Several years of pleading with the Ohio Board of Education yielded nothing, and my mother gave up the fight when, in 2005, she could no longer afford her Ohio mortgage and was forced back to California to move in with her mother. She eventually fulfilled her student teaching hours in Los Angeles, but the Ohio Board of Education wouldn’t acknowledge them because they were completed out of state.
 
My mother learned the hard way that the worst part about teaching in the United States isn’t necessarily the dismal pay, but the convoluted circus of credentialing—a phenomenon that began in the 1970s ostensibly to improve the quality of education, but only made more expensive hoops for increasingly underpaid teachers to jump through.
 
Since leaving Ohio, my mother has worked as an adjunct ESL instructor at Santa Monica College. She loves her job and is fortunate to have full medical benefits. She constantly expresses gratitude for her 50-plus-hour workweeks. “If it weren’t for my job, I’d go nuts,” she always says. Still, I can hear the fear and anxiety in her voice when we talk about the future. She still can’t afford to move out of her mother’s house. She isn’t salaried, and she’s never sure if she’ll have a job from one semester to the next. It all depends on enrollment, and the full-timers have priority.
 
In the meantime, she continues to apply for full-time work all over California and takes online career-development classes, attempting to keep herself relevant in the job market. She’s landed countless interviews, but not a single offer, likely beat out by a younger crop of tech-savvy and less-expensive entry-level teachers. She has considered declaring bankruptcy, but that wouldn’t free her from all of her student loan debt, which is the largest of the bills she must pay each month. She says she’d love more than anything to get a job with the L.A. Unified School District—something along the lines of what her mother once had—but the district is firing teachers, not hiring them. She’s not even upset by the fact that she’ll probably have to work for the rest of her life. She’s more concerned that there won’t be any jobs left. And I am, too.
 
* * *

In February 2011, just four months after I arrived at Penn State, the national news erupted with headlines about the teacher’s strike in Wisconsin. Hoping to cut the state budget, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker demanded that all public employees pay significantly more for their health coverage. He also hoped to take away the collective-bargaining rights from the teachers union. That’s when the schools shut down and teachers demanded that their rights be protected. The situation didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. I have spent my entire adult life watching the decline in quality of life of the American middle class. I was happy to see workers fighting back. What upset me most was the decent percentage of the population who railed against the teachers, claiming they were greedy and overpaid. And criticisms weren’t simply coming from the extreme right, which has a long history of pummeling teachers, teachers unions, and public schools. Antiteacher talk was now also coming from centrist friends of mine in the form of Facebook status updates. These people truly believed that teachers were overpaid and that education budgets everywhere were too high. Could they not see how many teachers were underemployed, if employed at all, or that education funding was already being cut down to anorexic proportions?

Less than a month later, I found myself personally involved in a similar situation when the Pennsylvania state government concurred with the nation’s growing antieducation contingent. In March, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced that he would cut half of the state’s higher-education budget. Penn State’s administrators quickly began looking at where they could trim the fat. On that list was my writing program, a drop in the bucket compared to other expenses, including our sports programs (at the time, it was also announced that the hockey program had received a sweet $90 million from donors). Furthermore, any of us who hoped we could stay on at Penn State as adjunct teachers while looking for full-time jobs elsewhere were told that would now be impossible. It didn’t matter that the enrollment of undergraduates at Penn State was increasing or that those new students were paying significantly more in tuition. Teachers, in various disciplines, were apparently considered an extraneous cost for the university. I listened as the conversations among my colleagues turned from engaging debates about pedagogy to embittered rants over politics and money.
 
But it wasn’t even Penn State that was hit hardest by the $900 million cuts. On January 6, the Chester Upland School District, which serves an impoverished, predominantly African-American community outside Philadelphia, announced that it would not be able to pay its high school teachers when they returned from winter break. One of the poorer districts in Pennsylvania, Chester Upland has relied on state aid to cover nearly 70 percent of its costs. This year, it’s $19 million short. The district’s board has begged Governor Corbett to restore part of its funding to keep the school afloat, but each request has been denied, with a response from the state’s education secretary that it has “failed to properly manage its finances and would not get any additional funds,” according to the Center for American Progress. Rather than shut down the school, Chester High School’s teachers have responded by agreeing to teach for free indefinitely.
 
I’m not sure whether I have a heightened sensitivity to news about education funding now that I’m on the teaching track, but things truly do seem worse than ever. Still, I have to acknowledge that these attacks on teaching have a long history—one that began shortly after my mother and grandmother entered the profession. Where teachers once made 15.8 percent more than their non-teaching counterparts, they now make 16.4 percent less than those in professions that require less education. A CQ Researcher report from 1984 states that “[teachers’] competence has come under increasing public scrutiny since the late 1970s as states began requiring prospective teachers to pass skills tests to prove their basic ability.” The report also wisely notes that, when the schools seem to be failing our children, it isn’t the system that is attacked, but the teachers themselves who are forced to teach according to poorly designed and standardized curriculums, such as those later developed for No Child Left Behind.
 
Still, instead of attempting to revise the teaching standards and make the system more efficient, we ultimately punish teachers with layoffs and salary cuts, while demanding they pay out of their own pockets for more education and training. We don’t see this situation in any other highly professionalized career. We don’t hear about judges’ or lawyers’ salaries being slashed because our legal system is inefficient. Politicians, who don’t even need a graduate degree to run for office, continue to enjoy rising incomes, even when their constituents view them as ineffective. And though U.S. health care is suffering terrible dysfunction, we aren’t shouting for the salaries of doctors to be lowered to help cut costs.
 
Right now, teaching is the lowest-paid profession among careers that require an equal or lower amount of education, training, and certification. The average starting salary for a government attorney is $62,000. A physical therapist: $78,000. And depending directly on the amount of education you have, you can start as a nurse for $50,000. Meanwhile, according to the Teacher
Salary Project, the average starting salary for teachers in the United States is $39,000. In privatized education, the pay is even worse.
 
For those of us who plan to teach at the college level, where Ph.D.s are often required, things only look more grim. In Pennsylvania, for example, 54 percent of all community college classes are taught by adjuncts who make roughly $2,000 per class per semester. When divided by the average amount of hours worked, that’s less than $15 an hour for a job that requires at least a master’s degree. According to the education news source InsideHigherEd.com, adjunct instructors earn, on average, $25,000 a year—below the national level at which a family of four can apply for public assistance. As an adjunct, the biggest perk one can expect is to qualify for food stamps.
 
And these people aren’t the only ones suffering. Students are paying increasingly bigger bucks to be taught by overworked and underpaid instructors. And isn’t that how all this got started? Weren’t we doing all this belt-tightening and restructuring to improve education in America? Well, take note: The plan isn’t working.
 
* * *

On New Year’s Eve, we sat around my grandmother’s dining room table, listing our resolutions.

“And Grandma, what about you?” I asked, curious as to what she might have planned for her 91st year of life.
 
“I want to write,” she announced emphatically.
 
“Write about what?”
 
“Teaching.”
 
My mom and I glanced at each other, preparing to hear the famous tale.
 
“What do you want to say about teaching?”
 
She paused for a while, thinking hard while poking at her baked potato. “I want to write about my students, what they taught me. I want to write about how, in spite of the obstacles facing them as immigrants, they succeeded. They are a true inspiration and people should know it. We cannot abandon them.”
 
My mom half smiled, gently rolling her eyes. “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”
 
I love and hate this sentiment—that teaching is as much a vocation as it is a profession, where the priceless gifts are bountiful, even when the dollars aren’t. On the one hand, it is true that the effective exchange between student and teacher can be an addictive draw. I can think of no more immediate way of making a difference in the life of another person than by empowering them with knowledge. It is a reward far more satisfying than any paycheck.
But that’s the problem, too. The love of teaching is splendid, but it doesn’t pay mortgage bills or fill prescriptions. In more than 32 metropolitan areas, the national average teaching salary is insufficient for home ownership, and 62 percent of teachers work second jobs just to make ends meet. Predictably, many are burning out. Forty-six percent of new teachers quit after their fifth year, citing too little pay for too much stress. And that’s a serious problem, since, in the next decade, more than half of the country’s 3.2 million public school teachers plan to retire. Who will fill their positions?
 
In many instances, throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it. But in this case, research has proven that it would. When the business management consulting firm McKinsey and Company polled college students at the best universities in this country, 68 percent said they would seriously consider teaching if starting salaries began around $65,000. And it’s been proven that the more you pay teachers, the better their students perform. In Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, students have the best standardized test scores in the world. South Korean teachers are paid 250 percent more than American teachers, with fully funded training. When schools struggle, they receive an influx of funding, not a reduction. Turnover is less than 3 percent.
 
It has also been proven that the gap between America’s academic achievement and that of better-performing nations has serious ramifications for the health of our economy. McKinsey found that educational failures deprived our national economy of as much as $2.3 trillion in 2008 alone.
 
Times are tough. Our homes are worthless, our retirement savings are shrinking, jobs are slim to none, and our state, local, and federal governments are all in massive debt. But cutting off our nose to spite our face is not the solution, and that is exactly what we are doing when we continue to slash away at education budgets.
 
Teaching was the reason my grandmother—a single mother and Holocaust survivor—was able to buy a house, put her kids through college, and retire with dignity. And the education she provided to her students was the reason so many of them overcame their challenges and forged a path to success. “Only in America,” my grandmother always says. It’s a reminder that now more than ever, with all the economic obstacles facing this country, it’s time to invest in our future, rather than borrow against it.