Working in Los Angeles, I saw how poor compensation affects teacher performance and thus kids’ learning. When the bell rang at 3, my students busted out of the building, but the second part of my day was just beginning. I’d stay after school to help students, grade papers, plan lessons and call parents. Then I’d trek to tutor in beachside homes. This work was much easier than teaching in my crowded classroom, yet I got paid a lot more per hour.
Working in an underresourced school and preparing effective lessons for middle school math, science and history classes — each with over 30 students of varying reading and English abilities — was taxing enough. My perpetual state of exhaustion and money-related stress made it even worse. Academic studies have confirmed that economic burdens, no matter your job, make it harder to perform and excel, decreasing cognitive ability and even temporarily lowering I.Q.
The financial concerns so many teachers face also serve as a tax on their attention. For me, when unanticipated bills appeared, I’d spend a lot of my energy wondering how I would pay them, which sometimes made it hard to stay present with my students.
While the country’s management class has been captivated by the power of wellness practices, researchers at Princeton confirmed that, to some extent, you can buy a baseline of well-being. They concluded that earning at least $75,000 or more annually (in 2010 dollars) stabilized people’s self-reported levels of contentment by making life’s difficulties more manageable. I didn’t realize how true this was until I left California to work in Indonesia.
My new school wanted to attract top talent, so it paid accordingly. Given the fair salary and favorable exchange rate, I lived well. With this new financial freedom, my opinion of teaching improved, and my performance soared. I didn’t mind staying late to plan intricate lessons or help students, because there was no second job I had to run off to.
Most teachers, naturally, wouldn’t move abroad to earn more. And they shouldn’t have to. The Equity Project Charter School (known as TEP) in Manhattan is a model that proves paying educators well pays off. TEP offers middle school teachers a $125,000 annual base and up to $25,000 in bonuses. This approach benefits both teachers and kids: TEP performed in the top 2 percent of about 400 New York City middle schools.
While carrying out that approach nationwide on the backs of local district budgets would be untenable, there is more than enough fiscal room at the federal level to subsidize investment in educators.