Vivett Dukes

I Told My Daughter She’d Better Not Become a Teacher Like Me

“Make sure you contribute to the TDA [Tax-Deferred Annuity]!,” I hear. “Teachers retire as millionaires!,” I hear. I listen faithfully and every paycheck a deduction is taken out, set aside for the rainy days of my retirement. I’m pretty confident that when that time comes, the contributions that I have made to my pension plan will leave me sitting pretty—or something like that. For new teachers, however, the financial outlook is not so bright. A recent article in the New York Times states:
A traditional pension can be a very attractive benefit, at least for those who work long enough to get back more money than they contribute. But because of high teacher turnover, mobility from state to state and other factors, only a minority of all newly hired teachers succeed in doing that.
As a matter of fact, 67 percent of teachers in New York will not break even on their pensions. I wish you could’ve seen the look on my face when I read that report. It’s bad enough that we as teachers are grossly underpaid throughout the entirety of our careers. Now I read news that is simply too much to bear: We will always receive the short end of the salary stick. I know too many teachers with multiple degrees in higher education who have to—not choose to—work summer school, score State exams, and take part-time jobs on the side in order to make ends meet. For the longest time my youngest daughter, Cereta, wanted to be an English teacher—just like her mom. Most parents would be honored to have their child aspire to follow in their professional footsteps. I told her in no uncertain terms to get rid of that idea of becoming a teacher. I asked her, “Do you want to live hand-to-mouth for the rest of your life?” I felt horrible telling her that, but it’s the truth! She’s lived through us being homeless, for God’s sake, while I worked full-time as a teacher. What a sad commentary for a profession that does so much for so many. Everyone who is anyone has a teacher to thank for their success in life. Did you notice how many Award-winning actors thanked their teachers at this year’s Oscar Awards? How much do their beloved teachers make? A tiny fraction of what they make, I’m sure. Teachers’ meager salaries are the brunt of jokes in arenas from movies to music. I remember listening to the rap song “Rico” in the car with my kids a few summers ago and hearing the rapper Meek Mill slyly say, “For my teachers who said I wouldn’t make it here, I spend more in a day than you make in a year.” It hurt to hear the raw truth in those bars. I couldn’t even refute it. My son Christian just laughed…and laughed…and laughed some more. All I could do was shake my head. I hear so much postulation and pontification about how we need to attract better candidates to the teaching pool and how we need more male teachers, especially Black male teachers, in the classroom. How are we going to convince potential education majors that teaching is a profession worth pursuing when the starting salary for a new teacher in New York with a bachelor’s degree, fresh out of college, is $45,000—and New York teacher salaries are on the higher end of the spectrum in comparison to other states. (As an aside, I’d note that the cost of living in New York is considerable higher than many other states.) At the end of the day, teachers don’t earn nearly as much money as we deserve, given the great societal impact of the work that we do. Until compensation—both salaries and deferred compensation—is fair, the teaching profession will continue to be the laughing stock of the professional world. I, for one, am no longer willing to have that joke be on me.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as Teachers’ Salaries Are The Brunt of the Joke — Except We’re Not Laughing!.
Vivett Dukes (nèe Hemans) is in her eighth year as a middle and high school English Language Arts teacher. For her first four years in the DOE, she taught in an all-male, all minority, urban public school in Southside Jamaica, Queens erected for the express purpose of counteracting the pervasive school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown boys. Currently, she is ...

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