Teacher Pay: The Opaque Fiction of Salary Schedules

Don’t worry. This is not going to be another monologue on teacher pay and how it lags far behind other comparable professions, and continues to lag farther and farther behind, especially for women. If you’d like that, here’s the NEA’s Professional Pay section on their website.

There are pay inequities in teaching that are almost invisible to the public. Inequities that most teachers are not willing to discuss because salary is such a personal issue. Personal? You might ask. But I thought pay scales were public documents? Sure. They are. They are also fictional. Read on…

First of all, at least in Arizona, and in many other states as well, an experienced teacher can expect to lose pay in order to make a career change. Broadly speaking, with the exception of becoming an administrator or a counselor, teachers who would like to take on new challenges look at switching districts.

This is what I did. I taught in a highly performing, fairly affluent suburban district for 10 years. As much as I learned there, and as happy as I was for some time, I wanted to see what it would be like to teach closer to where I lived. I didn’t want to feel so much of a socioeconomic gap between my students and myself (and the attitudes that went with it). On a practical level, my own children were going to be in Kinder and preschool, and I didn’t want to drive around town for an hour before heading home after school. I also knew that if I waited a few years to indulge my curiosity, the pay I would lose by moving would cause me to stay put where I was, happy or not.

So I made the leap. My grandfather graduated from the school where I got a job, and I have enjoyed my new challenges and I love feeling I teach in the heart of our city, literally and figuratively.

When I moved, I had been teaching for 12 years. My new district could only give me credit for 10 of those years. By moving, in addition to losing out on the pay scale, I also lost some of the pay for curriculum work I had been doing, and career ladder pay. The state performance pay was also somehow about $1000 less in my new district. All said and done, I lost about $10,000 annually to make the move. At the time, I thought my family could afford it, and I didn’t want to feel trapped by salary in one district for the rest of my career.

Since that time, I have not moved on the pay scale. This is my fifth year, and I have not received a “step” on that scale. This year, we received a nominal 3% raise to the base salary, but our retirement contributions and health care costs also went up. For me it was a wash. I’ve had no raise in the last five years. Meanwhile, I have 30-40 more students than I had in my previous district. And of course everything costs more.

So what? Most of America has suffered when it comes to salary, job security and benefits over the last several years.

Well, here’s the thing that nags at me. When I came into this district, pay steps had been frozen at various points so many times that by starting out on step 11, I was starting out getting paid significantly more than many teachers who had more experience than I did and had loyally stayed in the district through thick and thin. Teachers who I looked to as mentors were getting paid less than me. Why? Simply because they chose the “wrong” district to stick with, I suppose. At least when it came to pay. But they might not have fared better in very many other places.

I was temporarily pink-slipped my first year in the district due to the legislature cutting education funding (because it was my first year in the district). During my job search, I looked at other districts. In most of those districts, they would not credit me more than five years of my 13 years of experience. If I were to do a job search now, that would mean only getting credit for 5, 7, or if I’m lucky maybe 10 of my 17 years of experience.

Quality teachers make a difference in student learning. To attract and, most importantly, retain committed teachers, we need to offer not only competitive starting pay, but also continue to reward experienced teachers. Compensation plans (whether traditional or more cutting-edge) should represent a commitment that a district makes to compensate teachers for quality service, professional growth, experience and leadership. A compensation plan should not be an elaborate fiction designed to attract teachers to a district only to break treaty with them later when times are tough.

And salary schedule freezes are not a last resort, but rather a regular practice in many, many districts. The fact that many capable 20 year veterans make only a few thousand more than beginning teachers is laughable, and not uncommon at all.

I have been in conversations where districts are accused of trying to attract young teachers because the perception is that they are full of energy and commitment, and are a good deal financially. Honestly, I feel like districts in Arizona right now are getting a much better bargain with the experienced teachers who maintain their commitment to teaching despite the borderline fraudulent public documents that are the salary schedules.

It is time that all stakeholders are informed about this issue, and that teachers speak up about it. The opaque must be made transparent.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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