teacher pay

I Was a Teacher and I Was Homeless

"Whether you broke or rich you gotta get this

Havin' money's not everything, not havin' it is."

 —Kanye West, "Good Life"

The World Series is underway and America's favorite pastime is on my mind (Go Cubs—I always root for the underdog!) In my excitement about the Series, I can't help but think about how much these professional baseball players are getting paid to showcase their expertise and juxtapose those figures with how much professional teachers get paid to perform every day.

About two years ago I attended a Seattle Mariner's professional baseball game with some of my teacher-friends. During the course of that game, a colleague of mine from Tennessee, Robert Davis, and I, began to informally discuss this phenomenon of disparities in pay between teachers and other professionals, namely baseball players, and how that translates into just how devalued we are as American educators. Robert knows a lot more about baseball than I do, but neither one of us are aficionados by any stretch of the imagination, so forgive the simplicity of our analysis.

Sometimes the best points don't need the fluff. It's clear.

Now some of you may say it's not the same. You’re right: it's not the same. The hours, commitment, professional development, and caring that an effective teacher provides to his/her students is just as much if not more than that of a baseball player. What's wrong with this picture? Does America value baseball more than education? Baseball players more than teachers?

Teachers Are Underpaid

There's nothing new or avant-garde about this statement; but it remains a troubling fact. Most teachers I know, including myself, have to work some type of overtime or second job before school, after school, or on weekends in order to make ends meet. Professionals with multiple degrees of higher education having to supplement their income to be able to pay their bills—sounds bizarre, right?

Couple this with getting hit with a huge financial blow and, as a result, ending up homeless and you have now entered my world last year this time. I, Vivett Dukes (Hemans, at the time), was homeless from October 2015 to March 2016—all the while getting up, going to teach everyday, and earning a paycheck twice monthly.

Know that this is not based on theory but, like everything I write, is from the heart and based on my first-hand experience. I know what I'm talking about. I've lived it and I'm sensitive to the fact that many of my colleagues and students have lived it in the past or or are living it now.

Though shocking on some level because I don't fit the image of what our minds conjure up when we think of a homeless person, this phenomenon of a teacher struggling each pay period to sustain a roof over his/her head is more prevalent than we choose to acknowledge.

Teaching is the only profession I know of where one’s love of the profession is expected to somehow take the place of fair financial compensation. We have just as much required education and ongoing mandated professional development, if not more, as doctors, lawyers, architects and nurses. Yet I have never heard of any of these professionals having as little as $20 dollars left to carry them through until their next paycheck.

This is not about proper budgeting, either, so please don't try to dumb it down and blame it on the educator. Teachers are hands-down among the most intelligent people to walk this planet! All the doctors and lawyers and architects who are earning triple our salaries owe a significant part of their accolades to their teachers. Yet, we remain on the lowest end of the professional totem pole where salaries are concerned.

The respect we receive is little, inconsistent and lip-service at best.  I can't help but wonder if our poor salaries have anything to do with the fact that teaching is a predominantly female-dominated profession. Perhaps it's the prevailing thought that teaching is "easy" and that we get the summers off so we should be grateful for that and stop complaining?

I invite anybody who thinks that teaching is easy to walk a day in a teacher's shoes for a week. If you last that long, I guarantee you will be singing a very different tune.

America Needs to Put Her Money Where Her Mouth Is

It's time America puts her money where her mouth is and pays teachers their fair due. We more than earn it.

It's so easy to look on the outside and make judgements. Only teachers know that once you become one, everything in life becomes a potential lesson plan. We never stop working because that's just how effective teachers' minds and hearts are wired. We give so much of ourselves, emotionally and financially! I have students who call me “mom”—and I know I'm not the only one. We spend our own meager earnings on the supplies our students need to succeed with little in the way of reimbursement. The New York City Department of Education gives us $120 to reimburse monies we've spent on classroom supplies—and that's an increase! Most of us spend $120 during one trip to Dollar Tree! Teachers continue to be marginalized across so many planes and, once again, I'm tired of it and I'm speaking up about it! If you're reading this blog, I suggest you do, too. We must strategically band together and  demand the compensation and respect that we deserve.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk.
Photo of Vivett Dukes.
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 ...

Join the Movement