It’s Not Just About Pay: The Real Struggle of Teachers


Teacher pay is getting a lot of national attention right now. And it should.

The salaries we pay our teachers are unacceptable.

At a recent teacher retention summit by the Virginia Department of Education, teachers on the panel shared they will be paying off student loans into retirement. Their entire career they will be paying off their education. Ironic since they invest in the education of others every single day.

Some teachers’ families qualify for free and reduced lunch. Many live paycheck to paycheck. They spend all day pouring themselves out to their students, staying late to offer extra help and prep lessons, coming home with stacks of papers to grade and nothing left to give their family, and still wondering if the bills can wait to the end of the month. It’s not right.

We have to pay our teachers like the professionals they are. Period.

But I argue that salary isn’t the biggest thing disheartening teachers and causing them to leave a profession they love. It’s all the extra stuff and the way they are treated.

We have to also treat our teachers like the professionals they are.

Spend one day as a teacher and you will know that it is a tough job.

Go to a kindergarten class with students that have never had a structure to follow or heard the word no before starting school. Or go to a middle school class where students have to learn to be comfortable in their own skin before they can learn math. Or go to a high school class where students are so hyperfocused on their grade and class rank for college admission that they lose sight of the joy of learning and the importance of valuing their classmates.

But teachers don’t just manage these classrooms. They aren’t babysitters.

They write and innovate the lessons they bring to their classrooms. Not prescribed, prewritten lessons. Teachers write and rewrite their own curriculums to best meet the needs of their group of students that year. Great education comes from great teachers. As professionals, they hone their craft of creating engaging and meaningful learning.

But that’s not how society portrays teachers.

They are portrayed as glorified babysitters who drill and kill information. They are the first one blamed when a student struggles. The scapegoat for all ills in education. And it’s all wrong.

“One of the major reasons I left the k12 classroom was that I was blamed for students not passing the SOL. It was MY fault that they did not study. It was MY fault that they did not stay back for extra help. I taught high schoolers whose parents worked 3 jobs, so they were left to raise their siblings and possibly work as well, leaving little time to study.”
-Norfolk teacher, Chesterfield graduate

Every year the scope of teachers’ work grows whether it be new mandates, additional duties, or increasing class sizes and student loads. Each one of these pulls on teachers who are stretched too thin.

All three of these together are catastrophic for the sustainability of teachers and our education system as a whole.

As a high school teacher, I taught classes of 20 students and the same course with classes of 35 students. There are fundamental differences in not only the quality but also the type of instruction that can occur in those two classes. Additionally, the cumulative rosters of many middle and high school teachers are nearing 150 students per teacher.

Let’s do some math. Let’s grade a test.

150 students x 3 minutes per test = 7.5 hours.

If you want partial credit or essays assessing higher order thinking, easily double that.
For every assignment.
That’s why your papers have coffee stains on them and get wrinkled; teachers lug them everywhere they go outside of school to get them graded.

“I taught for 5 years and have now transitioned to the library, after earning my masters. I didn’t seek a masters in library studies for more pay, I sought it because every day was a battle that drained me mentally and physically. I woke up thinking about school, went to work worrying about school and came home stressing about school. I knew I couldn’t maintain that lifestyle when thinking of starting a family. I love teaching, I love the kids, but it’s not just time-consuming but life-consuming.”
-Lynchburg teacher, Henrico graduate

Big class sizes don’t just affect instruction and teacher fatigue, they impact the relationships that teachers are able to build with their students.

Education isn’t solely about academics. Social-emotional development is an essential component of quality education and we are generally doing a poor job at it.

Look at adolescent mental health rates, the general level of tolerance and acceptance of others, or school safety. The solution isn’t metal detectors. It is giving teachers sustainable class loads and appropriate supports and staff to address all the needs of students. And that requires funding.

From the Teacher Retention Summit by VADoE, Oct 23, 2018

So what can we do?

1. Show your child’s teacher some grace and encouragement.

When talking about your child’s teacher or administrator, be respectful. Your words and tone will shape your child’s opinions and attitudes about school and their teacher. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions.

For no reason at all, write a note of appreciation or send a small something to let them know they matter.

2. Help where you can.

In addition to being your typical PTA mom, I use my physics background to teach STEAM enrichment during the school day at our elementary school to give teachers the opportunity for small group instruction, and I provided extra support for high school students with one-on-one tutoring.

But you don’t have to have an education background to volunteer. You can make copies, plan fall festival, be a mentor, cover lunch duty, play the piano for assemblies, or wash glassware in the science lab.

Whatever your skill set is, it can be used to support our schools, our teachers, and our students. You don’t have to have exceptional talent, just a willingness to serve.

3. Tell your elected officials that you support teachers and our students.

Teacher pay isn’t the biggest problem, but it certainly is part of the problem. So is the lack of support staff and resources.

Tell your school board and your state representatives that you want public education fully funded. Check out the Red 4 Ed Movement in Virginia – wear red on Wednesday and look for action items in your locality (in 2019 we marched to the State Capitol!)

Teachers make magic every day with the cards they are dealt.

In the face of overcrowded classes, insufficient support staff, deteriorating buildings, and a lack of supplies, they make it work connecting with every child and innovating inspired learning. But imagine the greatness that could happen if they didn’t have to use their magic in “making it work” and instead could invest all of it straight into their students. Don’t our students deserve it?

Help fund our schools, and, by all means, support our teachers. 

Other comments from teachers:

I left full-time teaching because I had nothing left for my own kids at the end of the day. When I wasn’t in my classroom, I was responding to parent emails, creating lesson plans, grading papers, completing paperwork for my many, many kids with IEPs and 504 plans, preparing materials for crafts and projects, uploading pictures to my blog, etc. The list was endless. I felt like I couldn’t be fully present for my own family because of the ever-growing school to-do list running through my head. Teaching is a job that follows you long after the school day ends.
-Henrico and private school teacher, Henrico graduate

More and more is piled on to teachers’ plates every year for no additional compensation.
-Henrico teacher

I think the most disheartening thing is the degree to which we never seem to be able to get all the things we need to help our kids at the same time.
So for example, we talk about having supplies and small classes and adequate aides, etc, etc. It seems like we can only have one or two of those things at a time. So for example, I might have smaller classes and a good aide, but not the supplies I need. Or I might get supplies and an aide, but have big classes. And I understand there’s a degree to which that might just be the way it is, because resources are scarce and we have to make choices.
-Current Henrico teacher


  1. Thanks Marcie! I hate that I think about leaving this job. Somehow, I now have to help others do their job yet I have no help to do mine. I’m not sure how that happened. 47 minutes a day to grade 140 students worth of work and plan and set up for labs. Teaching has become impossible!!

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