Teaching 'Hard' - Yes, 'Underappreciated' - Maybe, but 'Underpaid' a Stretch

A solid career choice for those who can

The state’s largest teachers union has a longstanding newsletter called The MEA Voice, whose new editor, Brenda Ortega, was recently a public schoolteacher. Ortega wrote a column for the April issue of the publication describing the feelings she had when her daughter said she was thinking about being an English teacher.

“I honestly didn’t mean to clutch my chest and gasp for air when she said it. I’m sure she interpreted my reaction as a not-so-subtle indication of my feelings about that idea, but she couldn’t be more wrong,” Ortega wrote.

Part of Ortega’s column bemoans the hardships of teaching, such as being “underpaid” and “underappreciated" and working in an environment that places too much emphasis on standardized test scores. Eventually, though, she comes around to realizing that she approves of her daughter's career choice.

ForTheRecord says: Like many challenging jobs, teaching has its own unique satisfactions to go with its frustrations. But Ortega’s own professional experience illustrates other reasons why so many regard it as an attractive career.

Before she left teaching at the Vandercook Lake Public School District and later went to work for the Michigan Education Association, Ortega was earning a salary of $50,675. The amount included a 4.1 percent raise from the $48,639 she was paid in the 2013-14 school year. The figures come from a state database of teacher salaries.

Vandercook Lake is in Jackson County, where the median household income is $45,452, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

The pay figures indicate that in 2013-14, Ortega was in the sixth tier of the union-negotiated pay scale and advanced to the seventh tier in 2014-15. Her LinkedIn account's public profile states that she spent four years, 11 months on the district’s payroll before leaving to work for the union. The district likely granted Ortega seniority credit for time spent teaching at other schools, which put her in a higher salary tier.

Teachers in Michigan generally work a 180-day calendar year. If Vandercook Lake teachers choose to do extra duties during the summer break, individuals can earn an additional $27 an hour on top of their base salary. There are many other ways teachers can add to their base pay by performing various functions.

Michigan public schools are also known for good fringe benefits. The Vandercook Lake teachers union contract includes full health insurance benefits with a $2,500 family deductible. The district has a "hard cap" plan, which means it covers all premium costs for employees until the costs exceed that cap, at which point the employees would cover the rest. The district also reimburses employees for the deductible.

Teaching in public schools also provides high levels of job security, with teachers insulated by a state teacher tenure law. A 2011 law was supposed to reform this by making it easier to fire incompetent teachers, but the lack of a truly meaningful teacher assessment regime makes it minimally effective.

If Ortega had the equivalent of 20 years of seniority at Vandercook Lake she would reach the top-of-scale salary of $61,641. If she acquired a master’s degree the amount would rise to $66,678. With 20 years of public school employment, Ortega would also be entitled to a state pension worth $18,492 plus health insurance at retirement age, and more for each additional year on the job. Teachers are also enrolled in the Social Security system.

We share Ortega’s approval of public school teaching as a sound career choice. Periodic reports of dozens of applicants for a single public school teacher opening suggest many young people have come to the same conclusion.