Richard Swerdlow: Teacher Pay

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

Teacher pay is notoriously low, especially given the basket of vital things they are asked to do, and teacher shortages are growing. Richard Swerdlow has this Perspective.

Once at a party, I told someone I was a teacher, and he mentioned he always wanted to be a teacher. “Why didn't you?” I asked. He said he wanted to make decent money, so he became a dentist.

He wasn't wrong. My first year salary as a public school teacher, 28 years ago, was $25,000. Even then, not great for a job requiring four years of college and two years of graduate school. That dentist did hurt a bit - his job required four years of college plus four years of dental school. The average dentist in California earns around 10 times my starting salary.

My early years as a teacher, I was shocked by the poverty of my co-workers. The teacher in the classroom next to mine, with five kids of his own, went fishing at 4 am, selling fish to help support his family. One teacher worked nights as a bartender, another worked a grocery store shift. Full-time teachers juggling second jobs, trying to make ends meet as baristas, waiters, or shop clerks.

The news has been filled lately with stories of a dire teacher shortage. Last year, almost 14,000 California teachers retired. And even with new teachers being certified, the state needs 6,000 more teachers to staff schools. California isn’t alone - 48 states reported teacher shortages this school year.


Salary isn't the only reason teachers are bailing. But the low wages, long hours, and classrooms of unvaccinated students are all contributing to the teacher shortage. Even before COVID, some 50% of new teachers quit within the first 5 years.

But there is hope. Governor Newsom has proposed increased pay for teachers. And superintendents throughout California are in favor of better salaries for teachers. They understand our state needs to offer a living wage to find and keep the best teachers if we want a highly qualified work force of tomorrow.

I could have told that dentist there are other compensations besides money. That look on a student's face when a light bulb finally goes on is worth a lot.

And 28 years later, my students still make me smile. Any dentist should understand the value of that.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.