Teacher pay: Many teachers left behind

Alyssa’s recent blog on teacher’s status really hits home. She brings up the issue of teacher’s salaries, which has been nagging me for so long.

This is an issue of global concern. It affects not only less developed nations like my home country of Vietnam but also many wealthy European countries and the United States. The issue of teacher status also comes to mind when searching for what makes my country similar with the U.S. While I did not come up with as many similarities as the differences, some commonalities are really fascinating! One of these commonalities in the field of education is related to public school teachers’ pay. According to the OECD data, average American school teacher salary is approximately US$45,000 per year, higher than the OECD’s average of $37,000.[1]  Meanwhile, a Vietnamese teacher gets around VDN30,000,000 per year (an equivalent US$1,422). But it would make no sense to make such absolute economic comparisons. What I would like to focus on in this blog is a common public concern about teacher salaries and status in the two countries.

When I was young, I read a lot of stories in which teachers would be portrayed as “poor, respected old teachers” who led a very simple but virtuous life. In my childhood, this was understandable simply because Vietnam was in wartime. The national budget was limited and the economy was stagnant. Recently, the country has changed significantly with dramatic progress in economic development. Given that the government has spent significantly on education (about 3.5-4% of GDP), salaries of school teachers are still much lower compared to other professions. Sadly, most teachers can barely survive on their meager salaries. Many attempt to supplement their salaries by having extra jobs or teaching extra classes. Ironically, the notion of “poor, respected teacher” is still taken for granted today, as if once being a teacher, she or he must be poor and lead a simple life. Does it mean that poor teachers are more worthy of being venerated?

I was struck one day by the fact that low teacher pay is not unique to developing countries like Vietnam. Unfair compensation has been the complaint of pre-K-12 teachers in many states of the U.S. for years. Indeed, in contrast to a myth that teachers are overpaid and that teacher’s perks are too ample, the Americans acknowledge ‘the bitter truth of how difficult it is for the teachers to make ends meet.’  And in order to raise a family on one’s salary, over 60 percent of American teachers work outside the classroom. While seeking extra earnings, it is likely that teachers may not be wholeheartedly devoted to their main task of teaching.

Interestingly, just as in Vietnam, low teacher pay has become a real joke amongst friends’ conversations in the U.S. The following reflection from an American teacher also holds true in Vietnam:  “We go out to dinner and everyone takes turns paying, but when it’s my turn, someone always says, ‘Let me get that, you’re a teacher.’  It sounds funny then but, perhaps, no teacher wants to have this kind of treatment in his or her life. Also, no teacher, particularly in the case of Vietnam, wants to learn that parents send the children to extra classes as a way of ‘contributing’ to teacher’s income.

In addition to low income, teachers in both countries are often under great pressure for other reasons. In both countries, they have to work under rigid requirements and have high expectations from parents and society to produce high quality workforce. They take such a very important role in education, but when students’ test scores are low, teachers are the first and only ones to be called bad teachers. Even, many of those teachers face being sacked.

A long-term consequence of low teacher pay comes at a high cost for schools and children, who lose good teachers to better-paying professions. In the U.S., some 20 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession by the end of the first year, and almost half leave within the first five years. Approximately 46 percent quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States US$7.34 billion yearly.

Such high turnover has a devastating effect on schools. In Vietnam, many best and devoted teachers have to leave the profession. Many of those who remain in the teaching career feel demotivated, which obviously affects their effective teaching. Worse, this low pay scenario scares even the bravest students who want to become teachers, leading to further teacher shortage. There was time that teacher education colleges in Vietnam had to lower the entrance scores and exempted tuitions to lure enough students into teaching majors. Not to mention that by doing so, quality of potential teachers was downgraded, the problem of recruiting and retaining teachers remains unsolved. The puzzle of low teacher’s pay and teacher education is even complicated when it comes to teaching condition in the rural and disadvantaged areas.

As said earlier, low teacher pay issue is popular not only in Vietnam or the U.S. It is a global concern, evident in recent strikes for better pay and working conditions in the UK, Iceland, Maldives, and Australia. The Varkey GEMS Foundation’ 2013 Index reveals that 95 percent of the surveyed countries said that teachers should be paid a wage in excess of the actual wage they thought they received.

However, I cannot help but feel that this concern is taken serious in teacher communities only or by those who truly value the work that teachers have to perform in their job. Still, quite a few people hold that teaching is a simple job, because ‘all what teachers do is just repeating from class to class with little modification’. People think that it is a leisurely work, because ‘teachers have much free time: may not teach whole days while enjoying a long summer’. People believe that teacher’s income is quite high, because ‘teachers have high compensations and they may earn a fortune from their private tutoring classes’. And thus, merit pay or market-based pay systems are viewed as novel solutions to teacher pay reforms.

We hope that policy makers who consider teacher pay solutions are not those people. The simple logic they should know is: if the country wants to have highly qualified teachers that is essential to student success, it has to “invest” in them.

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One thought on “Teacher pay: Many teachers left behind

  1. Pingback: “Merit pay” in education | Education Policy Talk

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