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Young Teachers Deserve Retirement Protections, Too

September 24th, 2014

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How does it feel to lose $11,000 and know you’ll never get it back? This past week I discovered that I lost just that amount in retirement savings because like roughly half of America’s young teachers, I taught for fewer than five years.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made a startling admission on a recent segment of “Morning Joe.” She said fighting teacher tenure laws was pointless because most teachers in American classrooms today have less than two years of teaching experience. While that figure is a slight exaggeration toward the low end, Weingarten is right in recognizing that the teaching profession looks drastically different — and newer — from before.

Despite this, most teachers still find themselves paying into a pension system that is a relic left from a time when educators stayed in the same job in the same place for an entire career. Teachers in most states receive defined benefit pensions that are based on a backloaded formula that factors in salary and years of service: teachers receive minimal benefits in their early years, but are rewarded quickly and heavily as they near retirement age. The rules of these defined benefit plans reward longevity and punish mobility — even mobility within the profession between school districts or states. It works if you stay in one place and keep teaching, but doesn’t if you switch careers or move out of state, which is what I did.

When I left a Los Angeles Unified School District classroom after three years and moved to Washington, D.C., I learned that three years of employer contributions to my retirement became three years of donations to someone else’s. Since California requires five years of teaching to vest in a pension (19 states require 10 years), I was only entitled to recoup the 8 percent annual contribution that was deducted from my paycheck each pay period. I was forced to cede back to the pension program the 8.25 percent of annual contributions that were made — ostensibly on my behalf by my employer — an amount totaling more than $11,000. Invested very conservatively, this money would be worth at least $35,000 when I get ready to retire one day — but realistically several times that based on historical returns or what state pension funds expect to earn.

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Teachers Deserve More than a Free Burrito

June 27th, 2014

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“Thank you Mrs. Mullinax for recognizing my unique talents and making me feel special.”

Another school year is coming to a close, and thousands of statements just like this are flooding the internet as politicians and school officials remind us to #ThankATeacher. Each year before classes end, Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around with the intent of showering teachers with the praise, acknowledgement, and freebies they rightfully deserve. Chipotle was even offering teachers free burritos.

But the fact that our society has to make a concerted effort once a year to appreciate teachers should be a telling sign that we don’t value teaching as the challenging and demanding profession that it actually is. And even though a feel-good Twitter campaign might raise the profile of teaching for one week each year, it does nothing to address the outdated policies currently keeping our high-achieving Millennials from entering the profession.

In order to truly advance the profession, we need to muster the political will to finally revisit the outdated policies that treat teachers as interchangeable “widgets,” fail to attract top-tier candidates, and push excellent teachers out the door every year. The most significant way we can honor our teachers is to modernize the profession so that it meets the needs and challenges of a 21st century career, through a major revamp to the way we recruit, prepare, and promote teachers.

First, we must make a determined effort to raise the bar of entry into the profession. We know there is a problem when a bulk of our teacher prep programs have such low standards that they accept almost every single applicant and, even worse, are able to churn out hundreds of thousands of teachers each year in part on the taxpayer’s dime without having to show any real measures of accountability in return. Not surprisingly given this backdrop, high-achieving Millennials in a new Third Way poll saw the education major as a joke, with only 9% labeling it “very difficult” (more than a quarter of those who said the same about nursing) and only 37% saying those who pursue it are “smart”—not exactly a strong casting call for our top-performing grads to enter the profession.

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Giving Everyone a Reason to Teach

June 26th, 2014

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The first time I stepped in front of a class of 27 seventh graders—all at different levels, with varying needs and wildly diverse backgrounds and personalities—I knew this job was going to be anything but average. No matter how tired or stressed-out I was about making a particular lesson perfect, my students counted on me every single day to bring my “A game.” This meant figuring out on the fly how to teach mitosis when the light bulb on my projector burned out. Or hitching a ride to school from a tow truck driver after my car broke down so that I wouldn’t be late to my students’ first frog dissection. Or painstakingly figuring out exactly which student still needed help on which standard, unit after unit. Read the rest of this entry »