When I left Columbia Falls High School in 1990, I made $40,000 a year. Our school board chair told me that was pretty good for 9 months’ work. 

Ever since, wherever I’ve lived, whatever my job status, I’ve urged school boards and legislatures to pay public schoolteachers better. The response was usually a shrug. You could get teachers – good teachers – without paying them much. Too many people thought then – and think now – that ¾ of an equivalent professional’s pay is about right for 9 months’ work.

Today, the teacher shortage has hit Montana. Rural schools have been screaming about it for over a decade; now the shortage is hampering larger communities. Great Falls Public Schools, for example, started the last school year unable to find qualified teachers for three positions.  

Montana’s legislature is nibbling at the edges of this problemThe Montana University System is taking creative steps to fill the gaps. But in nursing lingo, we’re not staying ahead of the pain. And we’re not doing the most obvious thing – funding education sufficiently to make teaching an attractive profession.

The average teacher’s salary in Montana in 2018 was $54,034. The average starting teacher made $31,484. And teacher shortage or not, people who’ve never taught still think that’s pretty good for 9 months’ work.

So let’s start there.

My friend Kathy retired last year. Like all teachers, she was required to put in an 8-hour day for a 187-day school year (1,496 hours). She taught five high school classes during each day, but also had meetings with other teachers, parents, intervention and curriculum groups; monitored the hallways, study hall, and cafeteria; and met with students for extra help and make-up work. That took all the remaining hours of the school day and, on average, an additional 3 hours every week (108 hours/year). 

Preparing for classes had to happen outside the school day. Like most high school teachers, Kathy had three different subjects to prepare for. She used Sunday afternoons and came to school an hour early every day to get that done (288 hours/year).

Communicating with colleagues, administrators, and parents by email and telephone also went with the job. Let’s lowball the amount of time it took Kathy – say, 30 minutes a day every teaching day (90 hours/year).

For all teachers, assessment is time-intensive, but the time varies by grade and subject area. Let’s make Kathy mad and lowball that too, crediting an average of two hours/day for grading the work of 80 to 130 students for 180 teaching days  (360 hours/year).

To keep current, like all professionals Kathy engaged in continuing education on her own time (and dime), usually in the summer months, sometimes for 6-8 weeks, sometimes for only 1-2. Let’s super-lowball the average at 40 hours/year.

Add it up. An extremely conservative tally of Kathy’s work hours comes to 2,382 hours annually, nearly two months more than the standard hours for full-time, full-year employment. (And don’t assume elementary teachers have a cake-walk. Depending on factors like class size and paraprofessional help, their tally is as high, if not higher.)  For that tally, the average Montana teacher, after years of teaching, makes $22.68/hour. A starting teacher in Montana averages a crummy $13.22/hour.

The “problem” is, Kathy wasn’t the average teacher, whatever that is. Like most teachers, she went above and beyond. She advised student clubs, organized student fundraisers, attended student events, mentored other teachers, designed curriculum, pursued professional development opportunities, yada yada. Time spent? Hundreds of additional hours, probably. She never bothered to count.

It’s great that the 2019 Legislature provided a little extra dough for school districts to attract teachers in critical shortage areas. It’s wonderful that the university system is working with reservations and rural schools to pour some Drano into the teacher pipeline. But it’s not enough. It’s barely enough to recruit teachers and with burgeoning online opportunities for employment, it will not be enough to retain them.

When I left Columbia Falls, I experienced what most Montana teachers still experience when they move to another school – a huge pay cut. That $40,000 salary became $24,000. In six years, my oldest child would be going to college. I was determined to put her and my other two kids through college debt-free, and it didn’t take a genius to see I couldn’t do that on a teacher’s salary. In due time, I left teaching.

Today, some 60 percent of Montana’s four-year college students graduate with an average of $27,110 in debt. Given teachers’ low salaries, both those numbers must be higher for the children of Montana teachers. What a sad irony that the professionals most dedicated to preparing all our children for a college education are the least financially able to provide that blessing for their own.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.