Who was the best teacher you ever had? Can you remember her name? Did he ever contact your parents to discuss your progress? Did she make learning fun or welcome you to the world of reading or push you to explore your limits? Good teachers can be found in all our public schools, but they are becoming harder to keep because we don’t value their efforts enough to pay them well.

Governor Gavin Newsom is proposing a beefed-up state budget for education in order to recruit and retain teachers, especially those needed for math and sciences and those needed for students with disabilities. Whether or not this budget gets passed is yet to be seen.

It always amazes me that the public in California (I have only taught in this state) seems to under-appreciate teachers, especially when compensation is being discussed. I have been told by friends that I was so lucky to teach as it’s such an easy job—I could leave school by four every afternoon, I got lots of vacation days, and I got all summer off. Repeatedly, I challenged anyone who thinks teaching junior high is easy to volunteer to teach at a local junior high for one week, make lesson plans, grade papers and make sure all students are on task and not bothering other students. Most people I know don’t even want to go into a junior high much less spend the day there, and I’m not sure there would be a high survival rate among volunteers.

As far as those vacations are concerned, teachers do get breaks in their work schedule but for the most part, these breaks are unpaid vacation days. Teachers do not earn money during the summer break unless there is summer school or extra training or grant writing. Also, teachers can’t draw unemployment during their time off. That is why you find a lot of teachers looking for part-time jobs in the summer.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my job for the most part. It certainly was never boring, and most days I felt like I was doing something worthwhile. But after many years it became apparent that you could spend endless hours at your job—staying late, taking work home, contacting parents and taking extra classes—or you could do the minimum. Your pay would be the same. So, I decided what extras I would do, choosing the extras that would be helpful to my students. It would irritate me that good teachers were often asked to do more work while the few weaker teachers weren’t pressured to volunteer.

One year my principal wanted all the language arts teachers to take a class on creative writing. This class was at night for three hours, once a week for six weeks. First, I already had a master’s degree so didn’t need more educational credits. Second, I had three sons at home to tend to. And third, I thought it was unfair for the principal to ask this of us without some compensation. So, I spoke up and said I would only attend if I were paid or if I would be given comp time (days where a substitute would teach for me without it impacting my sick leave). Finally, my principal agreed to give us all comp time if we would attend the class. The point is teachers are educated and well-trained employees, not volunteers. If they do extra work or have highly successful results with students, they should be rewarded.  

If you own a business and have employees, you want the best you can afford. Pay them well and treat them well. Although schools are not a business, the same rules apply—pay your teachers well and treat them well. We can look at school budgets and the bottom line and how to pay for health care. We can argue over and over that teachers are lucky to get a job in places like Carpinteria, so they should be willing to accept a lower pay scale. It is argued that we as a community can’t afford to pay our teachers a top-rate salary. I say we can’t afford not to. We need to attract the best teachers out there, and we need to keep them.

Melinda Wittwer first moved to Carpinteria in 1972 and taught mostly junior high students in Oxnard during her 25-year career. Now retired, she enjoys pottery, writing, books and travel.

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