If you’re just getting to know me, you may not know that I spent three years working in Silicon Valley for an education technology start-up and network of microschools. Our intention was to disrupt the education system, using technology-powered personalization to give every child what they needed in the classroom.
I pursued this path for a few reasons. At the time, I really believed that education technology would provide sustainable solutions for education’s large-scale problems. Now, I believe that only people can change education by rebuilding the system itself. Second, after some traumatic experiences as a gay educator in Chicago, I needed a change of scenery. San Francisco provided me a respite that Chicago could not. But most importantly, the idea of leaving for San Francisco because I thought my experience as an educator was going to be different.
A Twenty-First Century Knowledge Worker
At the outset, the company seemed to really value its educators–just as much as it valued its operations, logistics, and technology departments. We were referred to as “twenty-first century knowledge workers” and included in high-level meetings that helped determine the trajectory of the schools, the technology, and the company itself. I was told that my years of service wouldn’t impact my salary, and that if my performance was strong, I could continue to gain promotions while still staying in the classroom working as a teacher.
I worked as hard as I could for the company. I tried to pay my dues and help create new ideas for products. I welcomed investors into my classroom, all the while smiling and telling them how incredible it was working for a company that really valued teachers. But I was lying to myself. I knew deep down that we weren’t valued because the salary they were paying us was hardly enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
Slowly, but surely, I started to learn more about the company’s pay structure, starting salaries, benefits, and perks. Folks in operations, logistics, product, and engineering were, by and large, offered higher salaries and larger stock options than the educators were. They were afforded days where they could work from home, where they could come in at whatever time they pleased. At best, it was an inequitable situation that could be attributed to differences in responsibility.
At worst, the educators were getting screwed.
In my first year, I received one of the promised raises as a result of strong performance. My base salary had risen to $70,000, up from $60,000. And while that sounds like a lot, it’s not for San Francisco with its astronomical cost of living. In fact, according to a 2018 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, any individual earning under $82,000 per year is considered “low income.” After that, my salary stagnated. I reached the ceiling in my salary and my career trajectory that they originally told me could not be reached.
I tried to negotiate, knowing full well that technologists and engineers at the company were making at least $40,000 more than I was, even low-level engineers with minimal experience. But I did so in vain. Even when they told me they’d match a competitive offer, they didn’t.
My last resort was to head to the CEO. After all, he was the one who had hired me. He was the one who had told us time and time again that we were “twenty-first century knowledge workers” and that our work at the company was invaluable.
Valuing a Teacher’s Code
“You know why engineers get paid more, right?” he said to me in our meeting.
I already knew why, but I let him explain it anyway.
“You see, Paul,” he continued, “most of the work you do is one-off. The engineers build code, and when that code works, it’s immediately replicable.”
He was referring to the fact that engineers build code that can–for all intents and purposes–be immediately copied and pasted, allowing any and all users interacting with the program to immediately benefit from changes to the program. It’s like when your phone updates. When it does, it requires little to no effort from the user, and automatically, millions have benefits from the work of a relatively small group of engineers.
He wasn’t wrong–in the sense that an engineer’s work is incredibly valuable for that reason. I don’t want to, for a second, undermine the fact that engineers do incredibly important work and should be compensated accordingly. But that wasn’t the point.
It was clear through all of these experiences that while the company said they “appreciated” teachers–they certainly didn’t value them. In fact, the CEO told me–plain and simple–that my work was worth much less than that of an engineer’s, that it was a matter of market value and economics. It was insulting, belittling, dehumanizing–and wrong.
“There is no market for what we’re doing,” I would say in reply, referring to the fact that we were very literally opening schools, building technology, and serving as spokespeople to investors and news outlets for this nascent (and ultimately flawed) brand of personalization.
My emphatic plea and strong rationale for raising my salary and the salaries of other educators fell on deaf ears, though. It was not something the company wanted to change because they knew that the educators’ code wasn’t going to make them money in the short term like the engineers’ would.
Educators write a different kind of code–one that has longer term effects than the ephemeral and trendy code that a programmer or engineer might write. The code we write is perhaps one of the most replicable codes out there: it’s just not one that is going to make a technology company any kind of substantial money.
It’s a code of kindness, it’s a code of joy, and it’s a code that fosters self-confidence and self-love. It is a code that literally alters the course of human consciousness and inspires children to grow into the best versions of themselves. It’s a code that beckons them to be vulnerable, to reach out to others, and to interact with the world around them. It is a code that brings justice to young children who’ve had the deck stacked against them. And while it may not replicate as quickly or efficiently as an engineer’s, it has the potential to sow seeds that will blossom for generations and withstand the test of time–unlike most education technology.
From Appreciation to Advocacy
It’s teacher appreciation week, and stories like this need to be told. They need to be told because there is a real problem in our country. Our country does not value the work its public servants do. During teacher appreciation week, we are expected to put a smile on our faces, and thank everyone for baked treats and hand-written cards, all the while not saying anything about the ways that we are undervalued.
In our country, 1 in 5 teachers have second jobs to make ends meet. In our country, teacher pay is falling while the cost of healthcare is rising. In our country, teachers don’t have enough staff to serve students with special needs or challenges with mental health.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I love the baked good and cards from families during Teacher Appreciation Week–and I know that my students and families truly do appreciate me. But we mustn’t let our gratitude cloud the fact that we need to have a serious conversation about the ways our society undervalues teachers. We need to show them that our work matters enough to dedicate more substantial resources towards it.
So, this week, in addition to appreciating your colleagues or your child’s teachers, do something more by advocating for them. Remember to vote for that referendum in the next election, to write to your local or state representative and express your concerns about teacher pay, or maybe even vote for a presidential candidate in 2020 who is ready to be intentional about teacher pay in 2020.
Many say that the greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its children. A nation’s greatness can also be judged by how it treats the people who are taking care of its children. By advocating for teachers, you are advocating for your children, too.
So don’t forget to advocate while you appreciate this week.
Editorial Note: The content of this blog post is not a commentary on my current salary or my current institution.