Is It Worth Being a Teacher? (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

Five years ago, I decided not to continue with my career in high-tech.  After twenty-five years rising, and falling, and rising again, through the ranks in my field, I decided to follow a growing calling to teach.

Little did I realize, or appreciate in others, that teaching entails great sacrifice.  This from a man whose wife started teaching nearly a decade before him.

While the sacrifices I detail below are true, and challenging, I still feel that the call to teach outweighs their weight.  The true test will be do I feel the same next week, month, or year, as this job is the most demanding I have ever held, even though I have worked for some demanding high-tech companies, such as Motorola and Qualcomm, and a start-up where I slept on my office floor many nights and weekends.

A Sacrifice in Income

As the following graphic illustrates, my compensation dropped precipitously when I elected to follow my calling to teach, and remains much lower than I earned in high-tech; I knew this going in, so it was not a surprise.  Nonetheless, without adjusting for inflation, my present salary equates to what I made in the early 1990 as an engineer.  Adjusting for inflation, I make about what someone with a high school diploma would make thirty plus years after high school; assuming they rose in their field to managerial positions that did not need a college degree.  While I might be a newer teacher, hence, not as expert as those who have taught for longer periods, the life experience and deep content knowledge I bring to the classroom is not adequately reflected in the salary schedule used in most districts, where years of service and continuing education credits determine your income.  This situation alone inhibits many in industry from entering the teaching profession.











A Sacrifice of “Free” Time

In terms of hours worked, many believe, as I did before I made my career change, that teachers work many less hours than non-teachers.  They even have their summers off!   The latter may be true for some, perhaps many.  For others, the desire to deliver the most effective lessons, activities, resources, and etcetera to our students leads us to work many hours per day over the summer gratis, especially for newer teachers like myself.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) imposes great hardship on teachers given the dearth of curricular resources, textbooks, etc.  While the following cartoon is in jest, it does hold a pinch of truth, as does much of the work of excellent political satirists, such as this cartoon by Tom Meyers.











The challenges faced by many students during the summer is not meant to be diminished, however.

Also, administrators may change the master schedule for teaching assignments from year to year trying to improve student outcomes, which necessitates developing an entirely new curriculum before the new school year begins; not an easy task.  Additionally, there are professional development conferences to attend, or summer school to teach.  While the latter is paid time, it does not move the total compensation meter that much.

A Sacrifice of Family Time

Prior to becoming a teacher, I thought I would have more time in the afternoons to spend with my school age boys.  Boy, was I wrong.  While working in high-tech, I could easily juggle my schedule to attend a sporting event, teacher’s conference, daytime school play, or other activity, such as coaching little league.  As a teacher, while my duty to deliver instruction might end at 3:00 PM, a host of other responsibilities to include creating lecture presentations, activities, or assessments; grading past assignments and/or assessments; discussing errant student misbehavior with students serving detention; meeting with administrators; collaborating with other teachers, often heavily influenced by administration; meeting with, calling, or responding to emails from parents; and reflecting upon past performance for improvement occupy my time well into the late evening, and sometimes beyond.

Sadly, even with this extra effort, since the typical secondary teacher has 150+ students under their purview, an extra two and a half hours per day correcting assessments translates into a mere 1 minute per student.  You cannot offer much written feedback on a student’s work in a sub-minute period, all the while checking their work for accuracy, thought, etcetera.

A Sacrifice of Staying in Physical Shape

Six months before my transition into teaching commenced, I earned a first degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do.  It took nearly four years to earn the degree.  Over that time, I flew to San Diego 50-75 times per year as well as nationally and internationally two to three times per month, while working for Qualcomm in their SnapTrack subsidiary, as well as their QIS division on QPoint, BREW, and QChat and their QCT division on gpsOne.  Most weeks my return flight from San Diego landed at 6:30 PM whereupon I hustled home then to the martial arts studio for a 7:30 PM class.  Some weeks, this happened twice or three times, as it was nearly the same price to stay in San Diego or fly back and forth each day.  Even with this very hectic schedule, I maintained my physical shape while working towards my black belt.  I could easily set aside my work tasks while I dedicated time to myself.

Since transitioning to teaching, I have allowed myself to spend nearly every hour outside of my classroom planning, developing, assessing, and reflecting upon the subjects I teach (algebra intervention, algebra 1, AP Calculus AB).  No matter how much time I spend, there is more to do, and at a higher level of quality.  It is very much like a black hole that pulls you into its inescapable center.

As such, I’ve regained all the weight I lost earning my black belt, and then some.  I feel drained every afternoon, and more and more often when I wake up in the morning before the school day begins.  I am unable to continue at this pace, yet, I have not made the adjustments necessary to do so.  There is always the next day’s activity to develop, or yesterday’s assessment to grade.  All of this saps me of my energy, as well as the desire to work out.  This must change.

A Sacrifice of Personal Time

Near the same time I earned my black belt, I joined a men’s team in the area committed to helping men improve themselves in whatever areas they deemed necessary, such as being in relationship with other men, improving one’s relationship with a spouse or significant other, or finding the power within.

For five years, I’ve been a member of a men’s organization, initially attending all of our monthly organization-wide meetings, weekly team meetings, and our fall events.  Over time, my attendance at each of these started to wane, so much so, that I am now a ghost of my former self in the organization.

Why? Since becoming a teacher, through a combination of conflicts due to grading and planning as well as the cumulative effect of my energy levels diminishing over time, my ability to attend these meetings has lessened significantly.  The emotional energy required to keep a classroom of adolescents focused, especially freshman who range from thirteen to fifteen, is enormous; it is even difficult to engage juniors and seniors in open discussions about mathematical concepts, for they are often overly committed to a series of AP courses, extracurricular activities, and work, leaving them exhausted and often dozing off in class.

On the freshman side, for those of you who have ever held a birthday party for your six to twelve-year-old child, where more than ten children are present, you have a small taste of the dynamic in many classrooms, especially one at a Title I school.  Simply keeping everyone in their seats and quiet presents a challenge, much less enticing them to engage in the learning objective(s) du jour.  Each day, with multiple, similar periods requiring your concerted effort to manage classroom behavior, while helping students engage sufficiently with the content to have any chance of developing skill with it, much less any understanding, requires a tremendous supply of physical, intellectual, and emotional energy.  You leave work drained nearly every day.

I challenge anyone who has not recently taught in a Title I school to do so for just one day to see how they view teaching; I especially invite those who spout about how poorly teachers do their job educating our nation’s children.  I would love to see footage of them demonstrating the supposedly obvious methods by which miracles occur.

Still Worth It, For Now

To answer this post’s title, yes, it is worth being a teacher, if your passion to teach has not been extinguished by the demands of teaching, which are extensive.  On many days, my emotional account is overdrawn.  Students flow through our public school systems like a river through a gorge, generating intense forces that move most objects in its path.  Rerouting the river, as we are asked to do with exhortations to close the opportunity gap or the achievement gap is easier said than done.  Most efforts over the decades where this has been the focus have failed to yield any significant results.  Why?  I do not believe it is for the lack of effort on the part of teachers or administrators.  I believe it is because it might be a bridge too far given the initial conditions as well as the constraints of the existing system.

In fact, the longer I teach, the more convinced I become that a teacher’s ability to change student outcomes in any uniform, meaningful, and consistent manner irrespective of students’ socioeconomic status (SES), environmental conditions, and self-agency is minimal at best.  Nonetheless, teachers are a powerful force in students’ lives with the ability to inspire greatness in our children.  The irony is the overemphasis on an equality of outcomes for all may weaken the net outcome for our nation as a whole, for teachers are increasingly demotivated by the incessant demands to do something, anything, to improve outcomes for low SES populations of students so that they attain similar outcomes as high SES populations.  Without addressing the SES aspect in the differences in the populations, the leverage a teacher wields will likely remain woefully inadequate, much like a hastily built earthen levee intended to hold back an overflowing river.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching

33 responses to “Is It Worth Being a Teacher? (Dave Reid)

  1. A lot of charter school chains like to wrap themselves in language of heroism, as if there was a comic book narrative awaiting teachers who simply possess the “right stuff”. In truth, there are 100s of thousands, probably millions of heroic teachers out there who understand that heroism is hard work, sacrifice and passion for your students and their learning. The story told here is not glamorous. But it is heroic. Thank you.

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  3. But with teaching you get 3 months off during the summer and you only work from 8 to 3. Just ask many of the students working on an education degree. What a surprise when they realize that you rarely make enough money in the nine months to cover living expenses for 3 months so you have to find a summer job. Oh yes, do not forget the need to go back to school during the summer to get those re-certification credits. So you are now paying to keep your job. And 8 to 3? More like 7 to 7 and you can take work home on top of that! The flip side is that it is rarely boring, the only way to get in a rut is to do it to your self, there is always something to do even if you cannot think of what it is at the moment, you are basically a student for life and best of all, you actually might make a difference in some kid’s life. Cool.

  4. Gary Ravani

    “While I might be a newer teacher, hence, not as expert as those who have taught for longer periods, the life experience and deep content knowledge I bring to the classroom is not adequately reflected in the salary schedule used in most districts, where years of service and continuing education credits determine your income. This situation alone inhibits many in industry from entering the teaching profession.”

    Yes, Dave, you likely are “not as expert” as those who “have taught for longer periods.” In fact, the classroom management issues you discuss, more difficult to master (typically) than the content matter, will begin to make sense after you learn that the management is imbedded in the instructional strategies you use. The “menu” of strategies available will increase as you gain the experience. These are the “soft” skills of teaching that don’t readily show up on spreadsheets of test scores.

    There is not much likelihood that there will ever be enough revenue available in the schools to “adequately” reflect the value that any teachers bring to the classroom table. The question then is, what values do you apply when creating the “uniform salary schedule?” Is it that industry values STEM subjects more than others? Should educators adopt “market based” ideology that says math is more worthy than language arts, or music, or history, or art, etc., etc.? I don’t think so. The salary schedules offering increased compensation for “years of service and continuing education” is the fairest way to distribute limited resources and one that reflects educational values, not industrial values. Those who don’t find value in other things than what industry offers should stay in industry.

    It appears that you, Dave, have found the “other things” that teaching offers are valuable to you. Good on ya’. Welcome to the profession.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Gary. I will leave it to Dave to respond to substance of what you say.

    • Thanks for the welcome message, Gary. The primary reasons I became, and remain, a teacher are the intangibles; any rational measure of the economics of my career switch would lead me back to industry immediately. The challenge for the profession remains that, as any reasonable person in any profession would expect, the rewards must outweigh the burdens, financial or otherwise, or a decision to move on ensues. From my short stint in public education, it seems the increasing demands placed on teachers rapidly tilts the intuitive cost-benefit analysis towards leaving. Perhaps this is simply amplified at Title I schools?

      • Gary Ravani

        You are right there, Dave. And around 50% of new teachers make the decision to “move on” before completing their 5th year. I think I was making mostly making the same point. Teachers must believe ” the rewards must outweigh the burdens…” The issue is what does a person find as a “reward.” If its “market based” compensation that a “reasonable” (in the purely economic sense) person is bound to, then teaching is likely not for them. Taught at a Title I school for over 30 years. Worked as a local teachers’ union officer for 20 trying to improve compensation and working conditions (aka, learning conditions) for my colleagues (and students). Never felt my “burdens” outweighed my “rewards.” Retired from the classroom in 2008. Was a great career.

  5. I stumbled on this. Sort of relevant to the conversation. I knew the Finns required a masters to teach and that the job was very high on the prestige list.

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  7. Great post, Dave. Thanks for putting this up, Larry.
    I worked for a couple of different Fortune 200 companies in outside sales before I began teaching at age 35 when I became credentialed in Ohio via an MAT from Miami University. I echo what Dave has to say about how hard it is to teach well.

    While I’m very fortunate to work in a place that I love, recent years have delivered a great deal of corporate-style nonsense from the state level. Moreover, the state apparatchiks and local administrators sound increasingly like the flavor-of-the-month corporate sales gurus touting new paradigms/rigor/etc (plug in your corporate or ed reform buzzword).

    Whenever I listen to the canned drivel that comes our way about PARCC, Common Core, OTES, VAM and the like, I can’t but help but think that the emperor has no clothes and that the individuals mouthing nonsensical platitudes ought to be peddling insurance or office equipment. The similarities are unmistakable except administrators tend not to wear pinkie rings and they definitely wear less cologne.

    This arena is ready for its own Dilbert-style cartoon, but I’m too tired (about 600 pages of year end papers to grade) to even try. Well, that and I can’t draw . . .

    Keep up the good work Dave and other commenters. I am heartened by all of your devotion to the work. Finish well!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Tom, for taking the time to comment. Dave will respond also.

    • Tom: You are my kindred spirit! I, literally, tell my friends and family about this craziness using the exact same phrases you used to include “corporate-style,” “emperor has no clothes,” and “Dilbert-style cartoon.”

      In my career, I worked in, and with, many functional areas to include sales, where managers and executives were too easily swayed by new management / business fads a la Tom Peters et. al. See: for the classics…I experienced most of these firsthand.

      Let’s hope the fallacy in the top-down approach gets exposed far and wide ASAP!

  8. pdexiii

    Mr. Reid, welcome to my world for the past 19 years.
    I, too, transitioned from ‘high-tech’ (systems development and acquisition, USAF: rocket motors and aircraft engines), and experienced what you did almost exactly, my first 2-3 years especially. I’ve long since accepted the routine of having no weekends during the school year, let alone a ‘social life,’ and I also lost a physical skill (vertical leap) when I started teaching from lack of rigorous exercise!
    As I say today to everyone: An aircraft engine obeys the Laws of Physics; 13 year olds do not. Indeed I’m working 10X harder than I ever did, but thankfully the enjoyment and satisfaction have been immeasurable in spite of the challenges faced with my urban demographic of students here in LA.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much for commenting on Dave’s post and comparing your experience to Dave’s.

    • Thanks for your comment. I look forward to the immeasurable enjoyment and satisfaction!

      From what I can tell so far, experiencing satisfaction in an irrational environment requires a mindset where one ignores the idiocy of the system and it’s concomitant circumstances and focuses on the achievements, however small they may be.

      My personal challenge stems from my engineering orientation where I seek to fix whatever seems broken or dysfunctional using rational, analytical methods such as root cause analysis. Many within education object to this approach as it highlights factors that are outside of a teacher’s, or school’s, sphere of influence, or requires rethinking expectations related to equality of outcomes. Yet, these dominant, first-order factors must be addressed before any significant change is possible, as they far outweigh the influence of any one teacher, or even a series of teachers. Unless, and until, this occurs, I need to stay focused on the small victories, even if they are not on any observer’s rubric, or one of the reformers’ talking points of the week.

  9. Bert

    Hi Larry,
    thanks for sharing this interesting text! I am writing in a German edu-Blog; and want to reblog. Would you allow translation and publishing of some shorter passages (perhaps about 400 words)? Perhaps you could contact me by mail. Thanks.

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  12. I think this article should be referring to “Math Teachers at So and So District or State” and not “teaching” in general.

    In NJ, many districts pay their teachers a starting salary of 50k and most move up to 100k by the time of retirement. Also, teaching high school Math and 2nd grade or 6th grade, etc are very different. While you might have to spend hours of planning and such, I don’t know any elementary school teachers who do any of that over the summer. They clean up their classrooms and get onto their summer vacation ASAP unless they’re doing summer school of course which is usually 2 days a week.

    Again, not trying to take away from YOUR experience as a high school Math teacher in whatever state you live in, but I feel like there’s a lot in there that doesn’t pertain to a lot of teaching positions across the country, especially the tri-state area.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your comment.

    • Sandra

      NJ must be the exception. I teach 1st in Texas and I’ve been teaching 19 years. I make 51,000 a year. I work from 6:45 am until 6:30 or 7:00 pm 3 days a week. (Mondays are after school meeting days. Committes, staff meeting, etc.) (Tuesdays I tutor after school until 4:30 for FREE.) (Wednesdays is lesson plans for the team which are due Thursday morning at 7:30.) On Thursdays, I MAKE myself leave at 4:30 so I can handle any errands or doctor appointments, etc. On Fridays, I usually work until 9:30, sometimes till 10:30 when the custodians lock the building. But, I try not to take anything home except grading and I try not to take anything home over the weekend. I work about 1 Saturday a month in my classroom, cleaning, organizing, and setting up seasonal/monthly stuff. I am currently teaching summer school (Science) to 2nd graders. I work 4 days a week 7:15 till 1:15pm (not counting about an hour of work at home to make printables, find cool videos related to content, get supplies for experiments (with my own money), etc.). In summer, we have Fridays off. It is for 4 weeks. The pay is LESS than regular classroom pay. I will earn $1400 for my extra month of work. I have July off and the first week of August. I am taking a class on the new TEKS (what we are expected to teach) for a week in July. I have brought home many things to work on at home for next year. I am promising myself to limit my work on school stuff to 2 hours a day (I am setting a timer.). I have to be back on duty August 15th. However, we only get 8 hours to set up our classrooms. This is IMPOSSIBLE TO DO in 8 hours. So, like all my colleagues, I will go in beginning August 8th to set up my classroom and plan lessons, write welcome post cards to my new students, etc. I will also work that Saturday, and the next Saturday, to make sure all the million little details are covered since the week we officially go on duty is filled with meetings and staff development, some of which is off campus.
      So, NO the rest of the country is not like NJ or the tri state area.
      SD in Texas

  13. Andrea

    Wow you should be a writer instead! Beautifully described and honest.

  14. Gladys L. Stilwill

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I became a high school English teacher at age 40 because I love to teach! I usually got to school about 7:00 a.m. and rarely left before 5:00 p.m. with a tote full of about 180 papers to grade. You can guess where I was Saturday morning. That’s when I focused on the essays. (You can’t teach students to write without having them do the writing!) Generally, on the Monday after the last day of school, I showed up at the local university for the first of the classes I needed to take during the summer to maintain my credential. With luck, I had a week or two to go on vacation with my family before I needed to return to prepare for the next year of school. Oh, yes, the cushy life of a teacher!

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