Commentary: That’s what the money’s for

Appreciation, itself in short supply, isn’t enough for teachers. They need competitive salaries.

January 5, 2022 5:00 am
East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

There’s a scene in an episode of the television series “Mad Men” that I haven’t been able to get out of my head recently.  In the scene, anti-hero Don Draper is working late on a Friday night because he’s miserable and wants to make everyone else miserable, too.  Copywriter Peggy Olsen is also staying late to work on a project because Don isn’t satisfied with…well, anything.  

As the scene reaches its crescendo, Peggy simply asks for appreciation for her work — she wants Don to give her credit for past work in the form of verbal praise or appreciation.  Instead, in true Don Draper fashion, he takes a wad of one hundred dollar bills and throws them in Peggy’s direction as he yells “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY’S FOR!”  

Peggy saw the intrinsic value of her work and wanted to be recognized in a humane and relational way — a verbal pat on the back so to speak.  Don saw the work as a cut and dry transaction — Peggy works and Don pays her for that work. 

Too many times in my teaching career, I saw educators, including myself, act more like Peggy when we honestly needed to have a little more Don in our lives.

For 15 years, I taught middle school in Madison County.  The work was challenging, mentally exhausting, and invasive. Managing student behavior was something that was never difficult for me, but it also had to have my constant attention. Teaching was never simply about showing students how to do an assignment and then allowing them to practice those skills; it was also about making sure a student could stay awake during class because they had been up all night taking care of younger siblings.  

Teaching was about listening to a student tell me about the shooting that happened next door the night before.  Teaching was about trying to resolve a dispute that started on Snapchat and was currently erupting at school.  All of these situations had to be tempered before even thinking about teaching students how to differentiate between biased or unbiased information in a text. 

 And that’s just what happens in the classroom.

Being out of the classroom for the last few months has allowed me to fully grasp just how difficult it is to be a teacher in modern day education.  Aside from what is required of teachers during an 8-hour school day, educators’ personal boundaries are also blurred when it comes to the demands of a school and district.  

Since the beginning of public education, teachers have been taught to find the intrinsic value of the work they do primarily because focusing on the extrinsic value of that job was pretty damn depressing.  School administration goes out of their way to praise teachers who volunteer to chaperone dances or agree to coach a sports team for a paltry stipend. That “sacrifice” is also part of the educator’s annual evaluation.   

If Gov. Bill Lee knew what work was like for a public school teacher, Department of Corrections officers wouldn’t be making more money in their first year of a job than most teachers in the state make during their first year.  

At the end of each school year, a teacher’s evaluations are pooled together with standardized test scores in order to show the teacher’s overall “level of effectiveness”.  Every teacher wants to be a level four or five because there’s usually money attached to those levels even though the evaluations are incredibly subjective.  The last evaluation that’s done is an evaluation on “professionalism”.  One of the rubrics on the evaluation is titled “School and Community Involvement” and to be a level five in this area a teacher would need to do two or more of the following things:

  • Regularly organizes and leads school activities and events that positively impact school results and culture.
  • Always adheres to school and district personnel policies and serves as a leader and model for others.
  • Regularly works with peers to contribute to a safe and orderly learning environment and actively facilitates improvement in school-wide culture.

And while each of those descriptors sound incredibly positive, teachers are not monetarily compensated for any of them.  

I bought into this philosophy of intrinsic value for a long time because I didn’t really know anything different.  I knew that I was tired a lot.  I knew that I would leave school and drive immediately to a surrounding county to officiate high school basketball games because I needed the extra money.  My life was such an all consuming rush that I didn’t have time to stop and think if this was normal behavior for a working professional.  After all, nearly every other teacher I worked with had a part-time job at some point during the school year.  

As a teacher, I’ve had to practice active shooter drills with my students.  I’ve had to practice tornado drills and earthquake drills and what happens when the school is locked down.  I’ve had to break up countless fights and prevent a hundred more from happening.  “Just part of the job,” I would say.  

But in August 2020, at the height of COVID in Tennessee, teachers were given ten extra sick days and dropped back into classrooms with some hand sanitizer and a box of paper masks.  We were told we were essential; we were necessary.  Schools had to be open so our capitalistic economy could run efficiently.  

And, while I very much agree that students need to learn in schools, I also realized at that point that I’d much rather have Gov. Bill Lee throw a wad of money at me and yell “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY’S FOR!” than pretend like he actually had one iota of an idea about the work that goes into being a teacher.  

Because, if he did know what that work was like, there wouldn’t be the need for the traveling road show of education funding meetings that have been taking place across the state. More importantly, if Lee knew what the work was like for a teacher, Department of Corrections officers wouldn’t be making more money in their first year of a job than most teachers in the state make during their first year.  

In December, in an attempt to recruit more corrections officers, Lee gave new officers a 37% raise which put the starting salary for a TDOC officer at $44,500.  First year teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools will make $46,000 during their first year, and MNPS is one of the highest paying districts in the state.  First year teachers in Madison County make $38,000. The average first year teacher makes around $40,000 — almost $5,000 less than a first year corrections officer.  

I am fully aware that there are far more teachers in the state than corrections officers, and the funding comparison is apples and oranges.  Where I can push back, though, is that Tennessee has always been ranked between 44th-46th in the country when it comes to education funding, and since Lee became governor in 2019, he’s pushed for Educational Savings Accounts — aka vouchers — that would pull even more money from public schools.  

Whether Lee realizes it or not, the one thing he’s been able to hang his hat on – the arrival of Ford’s Blue Oval City – is going to be vitally dependent on public education and public education’s ability to produce skilled workers for the plant and for management positions.  It’s in his best interest to put his money where his mouth is.  Stop telling teachers that we’re essential and show us how essential we are.  

We don’t even mind if that money’s literally thrown at us.  


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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)