For the past few years, there's been regular conversation about the sad discovery that many professions are only accessible to the wealthy. If you want to enter the world of Hollywood, Wall Street or many writing gigs, the path is through an unpaid internship which is, you know, unpaid. Other areas may attract the non-wealthy, but there entry-level "jobs" are still unpaid. If you want to break in, you need a second job, supportive and well-heeled parents, or someone willing to foot your bills.
But a conversation with an aspiring teacher last week led me to wonder-- is teaching suffering from the same problem?
I'm not just talking about how, once you land a job, you discover that the lay is low and that you are going to have to pump some of that income back into your own classroom. The first financial obstacle, however, appears before you even start your first job. Depending on where you decide you want to teach, getting a job straight out of college may well be possible. But for many proto-teachers, that is not going to happen.
Instead, many teachers have to work their way into a district by substituting. My wife and I both spent years doing day-to-day subbing and covering leaves before finally landing our own job.
But I worked on this path during the early eighties. Subbing in my region paid $50-$60 per day. I was living in a mobile home and paying $75/month for rent, so my sub pay, while unspectacular, was sufficient to support me (along with the help in extra-dire moments from my well-heeled parental units). I could hang in there until I got my big break.
But substitutes in the new millennium face a tougher challenge. In thirty years, our sub pay crept up to $85. We just this year decided to respond to the substitute teacher shortage by raising our pay to $100 a day. This is shockingly close to substitute pay in Philadelphia, a city that's far more expensive to live in (and where there's a substitute teacher shortage).
My wife entered the profession in the new millennium. She also paid her dues in the sub world; it required a second job, a period of moving back in with her parents, and marrying a filthy rich high school English teacher. Without extra resources to fall back on, she would have to give up dreams of teaching (which would have been a shame, because she is damn good at her job).
Substitute teaching is the barely-paid internship of education, and not everyone can afford to hang on for a year or ten of subsistence living. I have no idea of what the actual figures are for people who graduate with teaching certificates who give up on the classroom and pick another profession because they haven't got the financial resources to hang on until they can get work. But my sense, anecdotally, is that it's a not-insignificant number of proto-teachers who are being lost.
Worse yet, this means that teaching is particularly difficult to enter for folks from low-income families who have limited financial resources, which means that staffing classrooms in low-income communities face an extra challenge in coaxing back new teachers who are from the neighborhood or one like it. The corollary is that non-wealthy students are increasingly in danger of being taught by teachers who don't really know what growing poor means.
Are there solutions? Well, there's the old Pay Substitutes Real Money solution, but nobody seems to like that one. Or we could create some sort of entry-level career step-ladder so that a person could work her way into a teaching job by climbing a career ladder that let her actually live. The problem with such solutions is that they involve money, and we're currently pretty deeply committed to not throwing money at schools or people who work in them.
Nevertheless, the profession has a (nother) problem if aspiring teachers don't just need to answer questions like do you have the drive to teach or o you love kids or do you know your stuff or can you handle the students-- we're in trouble if teachers must answer can you afford to become a teacher? It's nothing good for American education if teaching becomes a job only for the privileged few.