Teacher salaries and one view of a pie in the face

Teacher salaries enticing from columnist’s vantage point
An interesting juxtaposition of articles graced the front page of last Saturday’s Dispatch. On the left, the headline boldly inquired, “Is $74K Enough Per GUSD Employee?” And on the right, South Valley Junior High Principal John Perales, wearing a shower cap and curtain, squinted in anticipation as a pie flew toward his face.

The articles illustrate the ambivalence I feel about the possibility of teaching next year when our youngest goes off to college and I return to the full-time working world.

For the past seven years, I have been teaching small groups of homeschooled children algebra, trigonometry, and calculus at my kitchen table, and last year I began teaching slightly larger classes of semi-homeschooled students pre-algebra and algebra at a homeschool co-op/private school.

I enjoy teaching high school math. And at the risk of sounding arrogant, I am good at it. But my part-time homeschool and private school endeavors do not pay well – to be precise, I stand to gross $17,000 this school year, no benefits.

Thus the salary and benefits package offered by the Gilroy Unified School District is enough to make me sit up and drool. According to the district salary information posted on the Dispatch website, math teacher salaries start at $42,588 for a nine-month year, plus $5,600 in benefits. This compares favorably to the $50,000 salary the UC Davis engineering department chair says is average for a new-grad engineer.

The highest paid, presumably most senior, Gilroy High School math teacher makes $84,524 a year plus $12K in benefits, which is almost as much as a design engineer with 30 years of experience garners.

I have now read the GUSD salary information. In my opinion, teachers make decent salaries. Bus drivers, aides, and other classified employees make decent salaries. District office administrators make grandiose and astronomical salaries, and there are too many of them.

In short, the money looks fine and the benefits package looks absolutely wonderful. And I love teaching math. But I strongly suspect I would not be able to teach math at a public high school. I have sat in on GHS classes; I have heard horror stories out of GUSD middle schools, and the picture of John Perales’s face, dripping goo, illustrates the point perfectly.

By contrast, when I waltz into my classroom, my students stand up behind their chairs. I say, “Good morning, Algebra I!” (or “Good afternoon, Algebra II!” as the case may be). They chime, or thunder, according to their various ages and genders, “Good morning (or afternoon, as appropriate), Mrs. Walker!”

This practice is not my idea; it is part of the school policy called classroom demeanor. I thought it was silly when it was first explained to me. But now I recognize that it is no sillier than karate students bowing to the sensei at the beginning of class. It focuses us: the students on respect for the teacher, the teacher on respect for the students, and all of us on respect for our common endeavor of learning algebra.

“Take your seats!” I urge them, and I write a one-point quiz on the board. The room falls silent except for the scratching of pencils. I take attendance, then circle the room: handing out corrected homework, picking up the day’s homework, giving credit or correction for quiz work in progress.

Then I launch into the day’s lesson. Thursday, my algebra I students learned how to solve a literal equation, and my algebra II students were introduced to solving three equations with three unknowns by diagonalizing an augmented matrix.

Disruptions, absences, and tardiness are rare. These students care about their grades, and I quickly leverage that attitude into getting them to care about learning algebra.

At GUSD middle and high schools, absences and tardiness are normal. Disruptions are constant. The background chat never stops. And John Perales cares so much about fundraising (not academics, but money) that he institutionalizes disrespect by allowing students and subordinates to hit him in the face with pies.

The act of throwing a pie conveys disrespect, mockery, hostility, and contempt: how could anyone teach, actually convey information, in such an environment? How could anyone learn?

Cynthia Anne Walker is a homeschooling mother of three and former engineer. She is a published, independent author. Her column appears each Saturday.

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