Markowitz: Back In School

Sep 4, 2018

About five years ago my daughter called from New Mexico, where she’d been serving as an AmeriCorps Volunteer running a gardening program in an elementary school to say she’d been asked to apply to become a fifth grade teacher. The region had more than 200 open teaching positions, and the school was desperate.

Aviva had never considered teaching as a career. In college she’d studied sociology and environmental studies, but she’d enjoyed her time working with students as an AmeriCorps Volunteer. So, bravely, she agreed. The first year wasn’t easy. She taught a large class of students, with no teacher’s aide – while at the same time going to night school for her teacher certification. But it was worth it – and today she has no regrets.

As a parent, I’m proud of my daughter’s decision to become an educator – but it’s made me realize that we need to do more to encourage young people to choose a career in education. And one step is to show greater respect for the profession by paying our teachers a fair wage.

Like New Mexico, Vermont is facing a teacher shortage – especially in our rural communities. When I was in college in the early 80’s a fifth of all students majored in education. Today it’s less than half that number. As the current population of educators begins to retire in big numbers, schools across the country will continue to struggle to fill positions.

Many factors contribute to this decline, but research shows that paying teachers more can make a difference when it comes to attracting and retaining high achieving students to the field, like Aviva. And in Vermont, starting teacher salaries are lower than the national average.

Teachers rarely say they chose to teach because of the great pay, but many, especially those with families to support, are surprised to find they need a second job to make ends meet. And, with constant pressure on school boards to hold down costs, many teachers spend their own money on needed classroom supplies.

But teachers are beginning to fight back. From West Virginia to Arizona last year, thousands of educators marched to demand greater respect for their profession, more resources for their classrooms and higher pay. Perhaps Vermont will be next.