Are We Better Off: Reading, Writing, and Landscaping

Mowing lawns, scrubbing bathrooms, selling stereos: How teachers make ends meet

As a nation, we're confused about how we see teachers. Most polls show that respect for the profession has risen in recent years, yet we have certain quietly entrenched ideas—that teaching is easy, that teachers get out at 3 p.m. every day—and these notions, all ludicrous, allow us to accept the injustice in teachers' dismally low salaries. We love teachers, we think they're saints, but most of us consider unavoidable the fact that they are underpaid and often have to work two or three extra jobs to maintain a middle-class existence.

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The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary—not the starting salary—is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000.

The first step to creating an education system full of the best teachers we can find is to pay them in line with their importance to their communities. We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher's. But it seems difficult for everyone, from parents to politicians, to shake free of a tradition in which teaching was seen as something of a volunteer project for women whose husbands brought home the real money. Today's teachers need to, but very often can't, support a family on their salaries. They find it difficult or impossible to buy homes, to save money, to live comfortably, and, in wealthier areas, to live in or near the towns where they teach.

I vividly remember, while growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the '70s, knowing that my sixth-grade math teacher was also—even during the school year—a licensed and active travel agent, and I recall seeing a number of my high-school teachers, all with master's degrees or Ph.D.'s, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it's a disgrace. When teachers are forced to tend the yards of students' homes, to clean houses, or to sell stereos on nights and weekends, the quality of education is diminished, the profession is disrespected, and we parody the notion that we hold our schools and teachers in the highest regard. Teachers with two and three jobs are tired, their families are frustrated, and the students they teach, who want to—and should—consider their instructors exalted figures, learn instead to think of teaching as a part-time gig, the day job for the guy who sells Game Boys at Circuit City.

Erik Benner, 32

I've been teaching history for eight years now, and for the whole time, I've been working nights and week- ends at the local Circuit City. It pays decently. We've got 3-year-old twins and an 11-year-old, and without the second job, it would be extremely difficult. The irony is that the extra job takes me away from my kids on the weekends. I coach, too, and football season is pure chaos. It's Texas. Football's big. It's a 12-hour day if there's no games. And if there's no games, then I could go get four and a half or five hours at the store.

I have a buddy who started at Circuit City the same time as I did. He's a store manager now. He's making the same as I am working two jobs. By me working my second job, I'm making more money than [a teacher] with a master's and 20-plus years of experience, which is sad.

It bothers my wife more than it bothers me, just because I'm used to it. But she'd like me to have weekends off. She doesn't like having to go to church by herself.

Rachel Cross, 30

I'm a single mom, and I did everything at school I could do, as far as tutoring and summer school. But it's gotten so bad that for almost a year, I cleaned houses. I'd just take my son with me and go clean houses. It's not that I think I'm too good for that. It didn't bother me to sweep, and it didn't bother me to mop. But every time I would scrub a toilet, I would think, "I went to school for four years and did very well, and I'm doing this."

I was doing it two to three times a week at night and on Saturdays, probably four to five hours, and making about $30 to $40—about $100 a week total. I would get off work and go clean houses and then get home at 10. And it's like, you're on your knees in front of this toilet, and you're almost praying, praying that it'll get better, that you won't have to do this forever. But at the same time, you've got to be thankful, because this'll be 30 extra dollars. It's a tank of gas, or it may be part of your co-pay if your child gets sick.

There's always something; that's the nature of having a child. One afternoon, he was riding home with my mother. And she gave him a couple of dollars because we were going to go to the movies or something, and he said, "I'm going to give this to my mommy, because even though she doesn't tell me, I know she doesn't have a lot of money." That just broke my heart. He was probably four at the time.

Dan Beutner, 38

My first teaching contract was in 1988 and I got paid $19,500. I thought I could do that, I could make it work, I'm not material- istic. As time went on, I got married, I had two kids, I realized, "Wow, bills add up." We were having all kinds of problems because my wife was a teacher, too. So I started taking on part-time jobs.

I landscaped during the summer for a parent who owned a landscape company. I was one of the guys making five bucks an hour pushing a lawn mower. They had contracts with local strip malls.

Then, the next school year, I started doing it on my own, just getting lawns I would cut. Every weekend for 10 years, I would go out and cut people's grass and install sprinklers and that kind of thing. I reached the point where I realized I could make more money as a landscaper than I could as a teacher. But I didn't want to do that—I wanted to teach.

When I would cut lawns, the kids would come out and say, "Mr. Beutner's here!" It was a big exciting thing. And I just said, "Hey, how's it going?" and I figured I'm showing them a good work ethic. At one point, I was working three jobs. I was working as a teacher, I had my own landscaping company, and I would deliver newspapers. I would get up at 3 a.m. and get in my car and go down to the high school where the newspaper truck would be. If the truck was late, I would sit there in the parking lot and grade papers while I was waiting.

Steve Herraiz, 40

I work 16 hours a week at a bar. I spend about 50 hours a week teaching. During summer, sometimes I travel to take a bit of a vacation, but I can't really afford to go too far because I still need that second income from the bar. What's really tragic is that when I first started teaching, I was making the same amount of money bartending two days a week as I was teaching five days a week.

I spent $3,900 of my own money last year on my classroom. And it's not anything extravagant. It's stuff like paper clips and art supplies and paint, and the things you would assume that the district provides and they don't. I was active in union work a couple of years ago, but I didn't feel like we were being heard. There are so many obstacles to being a good teacher that I just said, "What can I control myself?" I can have a second job and not have to worry about supplies.

The main thing about having two jobs was, I kept thinking that it's going to give me the extra money I need to be an effective teacher. In other words, I can buy snacks for my kids. For the last eight years, I've been buying the food that gets them through the morning because the school doesn't provide any sort of nutritious snack for the kids. And the kindergart- ners need to eat every few hours to get through the day.

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