Education leaders across the country are troubled by the high number of teachers leaving the profession early, and Palm Beach County is no exception. A recent study found that 16 percent of the county’s teachers quit within the first two years, and 11 percent leave between the third and seventh year.
Here, Megan Webb, who spent a decade as an elementary teacher in Palm Beach County’s public schools, talks about the role that slow wage growth played in her recent decision to leave.
Why I’m Leaving Teaching: A Wellington teacher explains a painful decision
More than 11,000 Palm Beach County public school teachers return to the classroom this week to prepare for Monday’s start of school. Here’s why I won’t be there.
By Megan Webb
Heartbreaking – it’s the only word that can describe how it feels to walk away from something that was once your dream. The one job you always wanted to do, the person you wanted to become.
For the first time in 10 years, I am not anxiously preparing my classroom, anticipating the arrival of twenty energetic children and a new year full of learning, laughter and excitement.
Instead, I am preparing myself for a new career in the business world. And not because I wanted to. I absolutely loved my teaching job at Equestrian Trails Elementary. But sadly, love just isn’t enough.
Why am I leaving? I am being forced to make a decision between the absolute love of teaching and living up to my potential to support myself. Since graduating from college, I have been fortunate enough to focus on my work, and ignore my stagnant income by living with my parents.
It has been a very comfortable living arrangement that’s worked well for my family and me, and I just assumed I would move out when I “met the right guy.” But, that hasn’t happened yet, and at the age of 32, I decided it is time for me to move out on my own and become a fully independent adult.
There is just one giant obstacle standing in my way: I simply cannot support myself comfortably with my current income.
A year’s experience worth just $274
I’ve always known that education would be far from lucrative, and I have always been accepting of that. However, I never anticipated that my salary would not grow along with my years of experience.
When I started teaching in the Palm Beach County School District a decade ago, I made $33,830. Today, I make $43,239.
While that’s a lot more than I made in my first year of teaching, it’s just $2,464 more per year than an incoming first-year teacher today, or an additional $274 for each year of experience.
When I began my career, the hope for a more comfortable future seemed attainable. The pay scale in 2007 reflected a more sizeable difference of $6,600 between a first and tenth year teacher.
Unfortunately, since I began teaching in 2006, we have seen serious changes to our pay structure, and a lack of substantial raises.
Compound that with an inflation rate of 19.6% over the past ten years, rising healthcare costs, and a change to our state-funded retirement pension (requiring a 3% deduction from our paycheck), and we as a teaching class have gained very little ground in a decade.
Discouragingly, the prospect of meaningful increases in the future seems dim.
Pay doesn’t go far in Palm Beach County
I have never been one to talk money, and while I’m sure most people would prefer not to discuss what they actually make, in this case it is crucial. To be completely straightforward, I calculated my take-home pay after taxes, insurance, union dues, and retirement deductions at roughly $27,800 a year.
Some may argue that this is a livable wage, and that many get by with far less. I don’t disagree that I am fortunate to have this, but I also recognize that I don’t have to settle for the kind of life that accompanies this level of income.
To fully illustrate the situation, allow me to do the math.
I bring home a little over $2,000 each month. In Palm Beach County, where the average apartment rental is $1,338, and after the cost of basic utilities (approx. $190), a car payment (with a modest lease, approx. $250), and car insurance (approx. $100), that would leave around $200 a month for food, gas, cell phone, and any other expenses.
Could I count my pennies, and scrape by? Barely. But what kind of life is that? And should I have to, with a college degree, after ten years of service, in a career that impacts the lives of our future leaders? It is completely unacceptable.
I’m not wanting of more money for social status, or material possessions. I just don’t believe, that at this point in my career, I should have to worry about whether or not I can pay rent and feed myself.
Pay dissatisfaction affects the classroom
My life experiences outside of the classroom very much impact the education I can provide for my students inside of the classroom. Correspondingly, it would be foolish to think that teachers can adequately meet the needs of their students if their own basic needs aren’t being met.
The alternative would be to stay where I am, becoming a little more bitter with each passing year, feeling “stuck,” handcuffed to a system that doesn’t value its educators or the students we teach.
In turn, my happiness and self-worth would undoubtedly diminish over time, to a point that I become a disservice to the very students that I sacrificed myself for. I am not willing to give up my “life,” only to become a lesser version of myself, and a second-rate teacher.
I love my job. I adore the children I am so fortunate to work with each day. I have incredible administrators and support staff.
I truly enjoy what I do, and quite frankly, I am good at it. With consistent praise, an overwhelming number of teacher requests from parents each year, and most importantly the love that I see in my students’ eyes each day, I know I must be doing something right.
I haven’t lost my passion. I’ve just lost my ability to turn a blind eye to the impact that my salary has on my life outside the confines of my classroom.
Teacher attrition hurts children
This is why I want the world to hear my story. I need people to know that I didn’t walk away because I fell out of love with teaching, or that it just became too hard. I am still as passionate about it as I was when I started ten years ago, perhaps even more so.
And I can’t, in good conscience, walk away silently and pretend that I’m the only one facing this issue. I know several other teachers in our district, and across the country, who are in the same predicament. We need to be talking about it in a way that might actually effect change.
We can’t educate our children without teachers, and our children, OUR FUTURE, are losing more and more talented teachers each year because our leadership can’t figure out how to adequately compensate them for the blood, sweat and tears that they put in every day.
Something has to change before our education system crumbles. Our kids deserve better.
Editor’s note: Megan Webb is taking a yearlong leave of absence to pursue a new career.