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Teachers Have It Easy

Dave Eggers’ new book explores the big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers.

Dave Eggers’ new book explores the big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers

Still trying to figure out what you want to do when you grow up? Lots of college students are going through the litany of professions that they can take on with a degree in hand: engineer, editor, lawyer, artist, doctor, teacher. But too few young folk are picking teaching as their career, and many who do go into it leave just as quickly. 33% of teachers leave the profession with the first three years and 46% leave within the first five. They leave for many reasons – but at the forefront is the issue of low pay. Many teachers have second and third jobs, can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood where they teach, have to pay for supplies out of their own pocket, and can’t afford to provide for their families on their paltry salaries. Every day, one more great teacher leaves the profession because he or she can’t afford to teach.

Teachers Have It Easy, a new book by author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, teacher Ninive Clements Calegari and former public school teacher turned journalist Daniel Moulthrop, weaves together statistics and analysis with the voices of dozens of teachers from around the country to debunk myths about the profession, show the impact of low teacher pay on teachers, students and communities and explore solutions that have been implemented in cities across the country. The book, which comes out in June, shares both the joy that comes with one of the most rewarding jobs on earth and the struggles.

Click here to read oral histories by teachers from Teachers Have It Easy.

A Day in the Life

This excerpt from Teachers Have It Easy illustrates the difference between the typical workday of a pharmaceutical sales representative and that of a high school math teacher, Jeffrey McCabe. Both of the work days are real. The rep chose to remain anonymous, a fictitious name has been used for him.

 

Jeffrey McCabe, Schoolteacher

Peter O’Neill, Pharmaceutical Sales

4 AM

4 AM

Wakes up and works out in basement. Showers and gets ready.

 

5:30 AM

5:30 AM

Commutes to work

 

6 AM

6 AM

  • Arrives at school.
  • Goes to mailbox to pick up notes, receives concerns about class placements, book orders, lost calculators, and grades. Goes to his office, skims email.

 

6:30 AM

6:30 AM

In his office.

  • Student comes in to make up a quiz.
  • Two more students who need help from the night’s assignment arrive. They ask about one of the later problems that stumped them. They each have a question on a different problem.
  • Two teachers arrive, interrupting tutoring. One asks about the quiz to be given that week in Algebra 2.

 

7 AM

7 AM

  • Finds out that a math teacher is absent. Searches for that teacher’s lesson plan and attendance sheets.
  • Meets substitute in absent teacher’s room.
  • Provides orientation to substitute.
  • Wakes up.
  • Turns on computer in home office.
  • Checks e-mail.
  • Checks office locations for day’s sample dropoffs.
  • Synchronizes PDA.
  • Loads drug samples into car.

7:25 AM

7:30 AM

  • First Period
  • Arrives in main office for Instructional Council (administrators and department heads) meeting. Topics covered: summer reading assignments, the awards ceremony, and the new county grading and reporting policy.
  • Takes notes and leaves with a to-do list of items for follow-up.

Showers, gets dressed.

8:10 AM

8:00 AM

  • Listens to student announcements on the loudspeaker.
  • Returns to office to pick up teaching cart. Pushes cart to room 290 for second- and third- period algebra with mainstreamed special education students, co-taught with a team teacher.
  • Quickly writes the agenda and evening’s homework on the board as students are streaming in.
  • Greets team teacher. Quickly discusses the lesson they designed together the previous week.
  • Greets entering students. Overhears students complain about weekend and can tell that one student in particular is in a bad mood and will not focus well.

Leaves the house in new Jeep Liberty- a company car for which insurance and gas is fully paid.

8:25-9:10 AM [Second Period]

8:30 AM.

  • Twenty-three students-three students more than the county-mandated limit for these kinds of special education classes- spend ten minutes doing practice problems. These are written on an overhead transparency prepared the previous night.
  • Takes attendance and enters attendance date into computer. Tries to make eye contact and chat with student he knows is in a bad mood.
  • Checks homework.
  • Talks with a student who has not done previous two assignments. Makes a mental note to call that student’s home.
  • Stops at Starbucks for white chocolate mocha (nonexpensable today because he is not training new sales rep nor meeting physician for sales pitch).
  • Heads to first appointment, checks voice mail.
  • Calls girlfriend to say hi.

8:37 AM

9:10 AM

  • Explains next activity to students.
  • Starts students on a hands-on activity. This lesson is about factoring quadratic equations. Visits each student to discuss lesson, answer questions, and troubleshoot stumbling blocks and reinforce concepts from previous lessons that some students still do not understand. Several hands are often raised at once. Co-teacher also responds to students.
  • Wraps up activity. Collects algebra tiles. Classwork is not collected, but will be check in notebook check next week.
  • Arrives at first appointment, at a family medical practice center.
  • Updates sales visit record in PDA while waiting ten minutes for doctor. Enters name of new physician in office (new possible customer).
  • Talks to Dr. A about product. Suggests possible future lunch meeting. Leaves samples and business card.

8:52 AM

9:17 AM

  • Hands out markers and one-foot by one-foot whiteboards to teams of four in the class. Makes sure to separate two students unable to work productively together. Teams begin to work on different problems that they will explain to the class.
  • Students talk through problems and record work on the whiteboards. Student groups decide who will present. Co-teacher and McCabe go to the groups to facilitate where necessary and refocus groups that veer off the subject.
  • Asks secretary if it’s possible to see Dr. B.
  • Updates PDA while waiting to see Dr. B.

 

9:10 AM

9: 25 AM

  • Five-minute break (second and third periods are together for both periods, so they don’t travel; Other students in school are traveling from period two to period three.)
  • Students use restroom, get water, and come and talk to McCabe and their team teacher about their concerns. Four students are in line to talk with him. Five minutes are up.
  • McCabe asks three of them to come to his office after school to handle individual concerns because they run out of time.

Talks to Dr. B about product. Leaves samples.

 

9:15- 10:00 AM [Third Period]

9:35 AM

  • Same twenty-three students remain because Special Education Algebra is two periods long. Students return to their groups and prepare for the next lesson.
  • Students present group work. McCabe and team teacher point out errors in the first two groups’ work. Co-teacher highlights exemplary work from one group for the class to see. The culture in the class is one of risk-taking and one where mistakes are okay. No student feels embarrassed, but one is happy to have found a “common error” that may be shared. These problems are later used for review games.
  • McCabe and team teacher organize cool-down for the last ten minutes. This involves an open-note, open-help, open-book quiz that allows students to reinforce what they learned that day. It is made up of the same questions they will be asked on a test so that they can practice.
  • McCabe and team teacher check in with students, answer questions and roam the room.

 

  • Drives to next appointment.
  • Checks voice mail while en route. Returns call to mom, who lives nearby.

 

 

  9:47 AM
 
  • Stops by Best Buy to use gift certificate manager gave him for last week’s successful lunch program.
  • Buys new Xbox game and a CD. Listens to favorite song on new CD.

10 AM

9:50 AM

  • Third-period class over.
  • Students gather up their things and head off to the next class.
  • Wheels cart back to the office. A student trails behind him asking about a low grade on an assignment.

Waits in parking lot of next appointment until song ends.

10:05 AM

10:00 AM

  • Back in his office.
  • Lunch. Eats leftovers from last night’s dinner.
  • Reads email and listens to voicemail. Ten emails from administrators, guidance counselors, and other teachers, and three phone calls from parents, administrators, and other teachers. These have arrived since the school day started.
  • Receives a parent concern about a new teacher- has to respond immediately to make sure the situation does not escalate. All parent complaints about any teacher in his department come to him.
  • Learns that he needs to be at meeting with a student and her family the following morning. At this meeting McCabe will learn that he will be expected to further personalize the lesson so that this student can be successfu lin math class.
  • Reads and responds to email from a member of one of the geometry and calculus curricular committees that asks for input on a framework document that will standardize the curriculum in the eighth grade in the two feeder schools.
  • Reads two e-mails from parents whose students were not placed in honors and who wish them to be. These are among the 230 written appeals to change math placements McCabe will handle this semester.
  • Leaves several e-mails and all phone calls for later. Runs out the door to be on time for tutoring session.

  • Goes inside, waits five minutes, updates PDA.
  • Meets with doctors. Leaves samples.

10:30 AM [Fourth period, room 273]

10:30 AM

  • Lunchtime tutoring for math students. There are four students waiting with questions about different tests. Another three are working on various projects and want McCabe’s feedback. Tutoring session requires understanding all levels of math and hot to teach to all students ability levels.
  • Leaves appointment.
  • Stops at post office on the way to next appointment to mail best friend’s birthday gift and buy stamps.

10:50 AM

10:45 AM

  • Runs back to office to pick up cart and overhead projector for his next class.
  • Writes agenda, evening’s assignment, and warm-up problem on the board as students are entering.
  • Greets students. A junior asks a question about the upcoming SAT as he is settling in his desk. McCabe answers the inquiry and resumes his work on the board.
  • Arrives at next appointment, at a hospital. Chats with clinic secretary with nice smile.
  • Spends five minutes with Doctor C. Leaves product samples.

11:00 AM [Fifth period]

11:00 AM

  • Welcomes thirty-two students to pre-calculus. McCabe is concerned about an absent student; asks another student to call him at home to make sure he gets the assignment. Checks students’ homework as students are doing a warm-up problem.
  • Teaches lesson on vectors using overhead projector. Students take notes and ask questions. Uses the overhead transparencies he prepared the week before.
  • Reminds students that they have an exam in a week. Students ask questions about content of the exam.
  • Wraps up and reminds students to copy down their homework assignment. Student reminds him what time class is over.
  • Takes his cart back to office.
  • Feeling hungry, picks up muffin at deli.
  • Back on the road. Calls district manager regarding next weeklong sales seminar in Vegas, where he will be staying at MGM Grand. Can expect tour of Hoover Dam, UNLV basketball game, and three meals/day on company’s tab.

 

 

 

11:20 AM

 
  • Arrives at office of group of physicians. Waits ten minutes.
  • Speaks to Dr. D. for ten minutes. Convinces him product really is the best for patients. Leaves product samples.

11:45 AM [Sixth period]

11:45 AM
  • Runs to main office, checks mailbox for memos and homework.
  • Financial secretary stops him to ask about a bill for the math department.
  • Administrator stops to ask about the class schedule next year. He wants to raise the class size cap of Honors Geometry from thirty-two to thirty-three. McCabe disagrees and argues his point.
  • Guidance counselor stops him to see if Tim Jones has been placed in the higher-level class yet. Counselor has also heard from the parents who e-mailed McCabe.
  • Makes copies of agenda for department meeting that afternoon.
  • Does not get a chance to get back to his office during this time. Realizes this and rushed to next class.

On the road to lunch meeting with Dr. E.

12:10 PM [AP Calculus tutoring]

12:10 PM

  • Six students are waiting with questions in AP Calculus. The AP exam is coming up and the students are anxious.
  • Tutors students on functions, integrals, and derivatives.
  • Leaves and returns to his office.
  • Arrives at restaurant. Reads newspaper and drinks ice tea while waiting for Doctor G.
  • Dr. G Arrives. Sits down, chats about his kids, orders strawberry lemonade and crab cakes to start. Decides on salad with organic baby greens and barbecued Copper River salmon.

12:30 [Seventh period, office]

 

  • Eats a protein bar and shake.
  • Gets three calls while in office from other teachers and parents. Looks at sixty-four pre-calculus quizzes that need grading. Remembers that three parents waiting to hear from him today.
  • Plans pre-calculus lesson plan. Doesn’t finish lesson plan. Hasn’t responded to principal yet on issue about a textbook decision for next year.

 

1:20 PM

1:20 PM

  • Takes cart to room 287 where he writes agenda, warm-up problem, and assignment on board.
  • Moves desk around to accommodate overhead projector and cart.

Lunch check arrives: $62.10, with tax and tip. Bills it to expense account.

1:25 PM [Eighth period]

1:30 PM

  • Starts by checking homework as thirty-two pre-calculus students are doing a warm-up problem they are getting from his overhead projector.
  • Teaches same lesson plan about vectors as fifth period. While teaching, thinks about how concerned he is for three of the students and feels that they will be better off not joining AP Calculus the following year.
  • Finishes up lesson; discusses upcoming exam with students.
  • On the road, stops to pick up dry cleaning. Calls fly-fishing shop to check the fishing report for his favorite stream.
  • Ducks into bookstore to pick up a copy of Moneyball by Michael Lewis.

2:10 PM

2:10 PM

  • Runs back to office to get agendas for afternoon meeting his is leading. Students greet him at his office with questions and concerns. He asks them to come in the morning because of meeting for which he is becoming late. Two of them are students that didn’t get a chance to talk with him during an earlier break.
  • Checks voice mail.
  • Calls sales manager back. Talks about exceeding quote to the tone of 127 percent. His regional ranking is No. 1, and is in the top 10 percent nationally. If he gets into the top 5 percent, he will win an extra week of vacation, and a first-class trip for two to the Cayman Islands- worth about $8,000. He is told what a great job he is doing. He decides, given that he did sixteen sales visits the previous day, he can probably get away with just one more sales visit today.

2:15 PM

2:35 PM

Skims his agenda on way to department meeting. Knows that there will be some tension about class assignments from some of the faculty next year. Starts to feel hungry but has forgotten his snack in his office.

After completing last sales call, heads home.

3:15 PM

3:15 PM

Finishes up meeting on time. Chats with several teachers as they leave the meeting.

Gets home.

Checks e-mail, reconciles samples, inputs call notes.

3:30 PM [Back in office]

3:30 PM

  • Tutors two students who have waited for him.
  • Orders textbooks for the geometry team. Finally gets to e-mails—answers two to upset parents supporting the math teacher’s choice to place their children in the appropriate class the upcoming year. Knows that the e-mails will be printed out and showed to principal- writes delicately about students’ skills.
  • Grades some homework, projects, and exams. Does not finish.

Plays new video game.

4:30 PM

4:30 PM

Leaves to go home with his algebra I book.

Does laundry and dishes.

6:00 PM

6:00-7:30 PM

  • Arrives home, helps put dinner on table.
  • Cleans kitchen.
  • Plays in softball game.
  • Goes out with team afterward.

6:30 PM

 

Helps with baths and pajamas with his three children under six years old.

 

7:00 PM

 

Reads the sports section.

 

7:30 PM

 

Reads stories to children.

 

8:00 PM

8:00 PM

Puts children to sleep.

Talks to girlfriend about taking tomorrow off to go fishing, will take company car and use subsidized gas.

8:30 PM

 

  • Plans Algebra I lessons.
  • Turns the TV on to grade quizzes.

 

9:15 PM

 

9:15 PM

Falls asleep in front of the TV while grading papers.

Watches TV, has a beer.

Excerpts from Teachers Have It Easy:

“I wasn’t doing either job well,” Dearman says. “Some days, I was working twenty hours. I was getting four hours of sleep. I was working at Leadership until 4:30. I would go back to the office after school, and I would go and work there, meeting with clients until 10. After they left, I’d have to do school stuff or real estate stuff into the night. And then I had my family,” he adds, laughing.

“It’s this progressive, liberal guilt we put on ourselves as teachers,” he says. “The media and the government, they feed on that. They totally do. They say, “If you’re a teacher, obviously it’s not about money. I thought you were an angel, I thought you were a saint. You’re a teacher, aren’t you?” They use that. I felt like there was this outside pressure not to talk about the money. There was this huge green elephant in the room with a dollar sign on it that no one could talk about.
Jonathan Dearman, former high school teacher, San Francisco

It’s great. It’s the best thing in the world. I’m very lucky in that I can honestly say I love who I teach, I love what I teach, I love who I work for, I love who I work with. The money issue irks me. However, I always tell people, if money was the most important thing to me, I wouldn’t have gotten into education to begin with.

Sam Stecher, 29, American History, Eighth Grade – Horizon Middle School, Kearney, NE

At one point I was working three jobs. I was a teacher, I had my own landscaping company, and I delivered newspapers early in the morning. I would get up at three in the morning, get in my car and go down to the local high school where the newspaper truck would be. I’d pick up 250 papers or so, bag them in the middle of the night, and deliver them. Then I would go home, take a shower, go to school, and teach all day.
Daniel Beutner, 38, Fifth Grade- Kyrene del Sureno Middle School, Chandler, AZ

I absolutely love teaching. I love to work with kids and bring the “ah-ha!” to them, and help them develop a love for learning … I’ll do strange thing, like have them stand on their chairs if they’re done with their math problem so that I’ll know they’re ready to give me an answer. Or I’ll have them give me a silent signal instead of raising their hand, like sticking their tongue out.
Kim Meck, 35, Second Grade- Fire Lake Elementary, Eagle River, AK

I spent $3,900 of my own money last year on my classroom. That’s a lot of money. And it’s not anything extravagant. It’s stuff like paper clips and art supplies and paint and things you would assume that the district provides and they don’t. It’s horribly demeaning and I try not to focus on it.

For the last eight years, I’ve been buying the food that gets them through the morning. A typical day has me stopping at the market to get snacks for my kids because the school doesn’t provide any sort of nutritious snack for the kids. And the kindergartners need to eat every few hours to get through the day.
Steve Herraiz, 40, Kindergarten – John Muir Elementary School, San Francisco, CA

The townhouse community I live in is pretty much Section 8 government-subsidized low-income housing. When you enter my part of the townhouse community, there’s a dumpster on the left-hand side that’s always flowing with garbage. A lot of the houses around here are missing screen doors, the paint is coming off, some of the outside lights are damaged. I know in the past there have been shootings here and there. When I told my parents I was buying a townhouse in this community, they were appalled that I couldn’t afford anything better.
Alyssa Nannt, 37, Special Education- Easton High School, Easton, MD

I wasn’t crazy about my childhood. Somewhere in high school, I got the idea that I would be a teacher so I could be there for some child where someone wasn’t there for me. That’s how I decided to be a teacher.
Jeffrey Taylor Bauer, 31, Third Grade – Lincoln School, Englewood, NJ

My first principal said, “If it weren’t for us, the doctors, the lawyers- nobody would be anywhere.” They don’t realize that. They had to learn to read somewhere.
Tish Smedly, 53, Pre – K – Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nashville, TN

There was a girl I dated for a long time, through high school and into college. In my senior year, I said, “I wouldn’t mind maybe going into teaching,” and she said, “Don’t waste your talent on that.”
Dave Denning, 28, History – Cross Timbers Middle School, Grapevine, TX

There are two things that make teaching extraordinarily hard. One is the intensity of being “on” for the six and a half hours that you’re on, in ways that almost no other profession requires. You can’t drop down and not pay attention. When you’re with the kids, you cannot not be there. That kind of intensity is quite hard.
Gaea Leinhardt, Professor, University of Pittsburgh

The going to the bathroom thing is a huge thing for me. I actually had to get a note from my doctor saying that I needed to be excused to use the restroom during the day. There were times I had to go six or eight hours without having a chance to leave my classroom.
Catherine Travelute, 29, English 9-11- Cross Keys High School, Atlanta, GA

It’s hard, because we all know that when you’re a teacher, the returns are not immediate. Every so often you find little notes, or a kid will send you a postcard. I always joke because now I’ll meet some middle-aged fat guy in the street and he’ll say, “Oh, you were my favorite teacher.”
Elizabeth Grady, 57, K-12 Coordinator for History and Social Sciences- Cambridge Massachusetts Public Schools, Cambridge, MA

Those are the rewards you get as a teacher, when you know you’ve made an impact on somebody’s life. I know that I must be doing something right.
Paul Callan, 55, Electrical Technology- Ohio County Area Vocational Educational Center, Hartford, KY

Learn More:

“Why Do High-Poverty Schools Have Difficulty Staffing Their Classrooms with Qualified Teachers?” – by Richard M. Ingersoll

Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force” – CAP Progressive Priorities Project

Lifting Teacher Performance” – by Andrew Leigh and Sara Mead

Organizations:

The Teaching Commission – working to improve student performance and close America’s dangerous achievement gap by transforming the way in which America’s public school teachers are prepared, recruited, retained, and rewarded.

National Commission of Teaching and America’s Future – a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing every child with competent, caring, qualified teachers in schools organized for success.

826 Valencia – helps children age 8-18 to develop their writing skills. Click here for information on how you can help out.

Illustrations: Matt Bors

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