Veteran Teachers: Overprotected, Not Underpaid

William Chitwood, a former junior high school teacher, is a private-sector language arts instructor who lives in La Canada Flintridge

“Thank you very much for comming in on such short notice. There is really nothing happening in these classes. Keep them in the room & quiet. I’ll try to arrange a video or they can prepare for other classes. . . .”

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“Subtract 5 points each time a student talks or turns around etc. during the test, even if he or she is finnished. . . .”

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“[Period] 1. Audio Visual. There are no students this period and nothing for you to do. Go catch some Zzzzzs. . . .”


--Lesson plans, misspellings intact, left for a substitute by veteran teachers at two Glendale public high schools


As echoed during a recent United Teachers-Los Angeles demonstration for a 6% raise, state teacher unions love to characterize their members as victims of low pay. But in view of minimal standards, supplementary pay, block vacation time, permanent job security and other utopian perks, this plaintive tale of under-compensation is at best a myth.

In fact, a recent American Federation of Teachers survey showed that 1998 California teacher salaries averaged $44,585 per academic year--eighth highest in the United States. It also could have mentioned that instructors typically teach only five hours per day, get much-coveted free summers or equivalent time at year-round schools, 15 days of winter and spring vacation breaks, about 10 paid sick or personal days off, plus about seven government holidays. Add another three or four nonteaching days for “staff development” chitchat and partial-day “in service” sessions that end before noon.

Without factoring in expensive, high-quality health benefits worth at least $10,000 per year, the average “annual” salary for a job-secured, mid-level teacher with a master’s degree works out to about eight months on site at $5,573 each--hardly a ticket to the poorhouse.

And thanks to combined pay incentives like longevity, bilingual certification, auxiliary periods, urban school differentials, off-track teaching, intervention programs, coaching, drama and journalism, some UTLA teachers now earn more than $100,000 per year, according to Los Angeles Unified School District officials.

Compare that California gold mine to the typical $45,000 pre-retirement salary for private-sector teachers, who have no rich unions or state-subsidized “specialist” perks but must consistently produce demonstrably good results or be replaced.


Of course, many teachers work outside the classroom, but except for sports coaching, producing the school newspaper, directing plays and similar after-school activities, union regulations ensure that Junior’s physical education teacher--with possibly zero papers to grade each week--earns the same base salary as a harried academic instructor with five periods of homework-generating language arts.

With the exceptions of voluntary national certification, bilingualism, dubious specialist titles and limited mentor-teacher programs, there exists no local employment differential that reflects either the quantity or quality of teachers’ day-to-day classroom activities.

Like the veterans quoted at the beginning of this article, lazy and ill-prepared teachers who haphazardly assign busywork or present sleep-inducing videos each week are lumped in with those who challenge students with labor-intensive research papers and frequent essays--assignments that may take a week or more to evaluate at home.


By contrast, new teachers--like the rest of us in the terrestrial labor force--work with the sobering knowledge that they can be fired or laid off at will. Confronted by complacent colleagues, typically huge classes of the worst students and inadequate texts, it’s no wonder that about a fifth of idealistic, hard-working new teachers abandon K-12 public education in disgust after an awful first year.

Unions blame salaries, but with base pay (not including incentives) starting at $32,569 in L.A. and $32,653 in Glendale, “low pay” can’t be the primary motivation, because teacher salaries at a typical private, for-profit school chain in the San Fernando Valley start at only $27,000.

Those who stay in public education for a third year automatically join the 71% of California’s tenured teachers, whose unions’ prime directive is to keep district boards from firing members for anything less than serious crimes, willful state Education Code violations or “gross moral turpitude.”


Not exactly lofty professional standards in exchange for typical high-end salaries of more than $61,000 in Los Angeles and $65,000 in Glendale. Indeed, firing or de-certifying a tenured teacher for “mere” incompetence is akin to putting toothpaste back in the tube--and paying lawyers megabucks to clean up the mess.

Back in 1969, when our schools were the envy of the nation, the average California teacher made $10,315. The only tangible linkage between increased teacher pay and instructional quality during the last 30 years is that state teacher salaries have quadrupled while student reading scores have approached rock bottom.

Today a new state policy linking instructor and principal pay and jobs to student achievement tests marks a first step toward meaningful reform; however, it fails to provide specific criteria for docking or firing--not merely mentoring or transferring--lazy or unqualified veteran instructors who don’t belong on any campus.

Teaching was once considered a privilege, but teachers have gradually become a privileged class. It’s time for voters to create and enact local ballot initiatives requiring school districts to establish objective standards by which to compensate, promote or terminate all instructors based solely on their daily classroom performance.