Why are Hawaii's teachers worth less than Pittsburgh's?
AS a third-grade teacher in a public school in Hawaii, it sure was nice to open up my March issue of Instructor magazine to discover that somewhere out there, teachers can earn as much as six figures in annual salaries.
Somewhere, that is, as far away from Hawaii in attitude toward teachers as it is in miles.
The cover story in Instructor, a publication by Scholastic for K-to-8 educators, was headlined, "Isn't it time teachers heard some good news? Making 100 grand!" The article was about teachers in places like Pittsburgh making good livings doing the same job I do. I discovered some interesting facts about our own teacher-pay situation.
Congratulations, Hawaii! We came in No. 1 in the United States -- No. 1 as the place where "it doesn't pay to teach." We have the lowest starting salary for teachers (adjusted pay, $27,048) nationally, according to a National Education Association National Center for Policy Analysis 2003-04 report.
I have been a full-time teacher in elementary school for almost 14 years, and I made a whopping $36,700 last year. What other college-educated profession can match this?
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love teaching. I couldn't think of a more rewarding way to spend my days and my life. Most teachers I know have entered the profession for something other than the salary.
However, we are presently dealing with a crisis that is only going to escalate. Many teachers in our public schools will be retiring in the next couple of years, and we are facing a catastrophic teacher shortage. Most people, when considering a career, want to make a decent living. I worry that many who might have once considered teaching will not even give it serious thought because of the ridiculously low pay. Instructor magazine quoted Harvard researchers saying, "What teachers earn in the beginning and throughout their careers determines who considers teaching, who gives it a try and who ultimately stays."
When I graduated from high school in 1962, our female valedictorian went to college to become a teacher. Back then, women were "encouraged" to go into teaching, nursing or the secretarial field, regardless of their potential to succeed in other fields. As much as this obviously needed to change, the upshot was that the teaching profession got the "best and the brightest" women coming out of college. Now, with so many other professions that welcome smart women, I wonder how many female high school graduates, at the top of their class, are choosing to be teachers. As for males, well, there has always been a problem attracting men because the pay is just too low.
SO HOW do we attract new teachers? A Pittsburgh public school teacher, making $103,000 a year, says in the article, "I happen to work for a school district that really values teachers, and they always have."
I have read countless research that concludes over and over again that good teachers are the key to a child's education. Until those who make the decisions concerning teacher salaries really care about public education, I see a dismal future for our keiki.
That said, there is a glimmer of hope: There are other places in our nation that have realized a teacher has to make a decent living. This is not the case in Hawaii, but it can be.
I am not an expert in deciding exactly how to pay for raises for teachers. That is not my job. We have enough government officials who could look into where our tax money is being spent wastefully. What the Instructor article shows is that there are working models out there that our elected officials could look at to find out how Pittsburgh and other places do it.
If our policy-makers treated public education as a priority, they would be looking into ways we could better entice and retain teachers. It's not always about the money -- often incentives and other creative solutions can work wonders. A recent Newsweek article calls for tying legislators' pay raises to those they give teachers. Hmmm.
I'm not a public policy expert, but I am an expert at keeping 28 or more children learning, motivated and on track, day in and day out throughout the school year. However, I'll be retiring soon, so my question is, Who is going to choose to teach our children in Hawaii's public schools? Who can afford to do it?
Jan Olson is a third-grade teacher at Sunset Beach Elementary School on the North Shore.