Teaching or Business: The Million Dollar Question
By Alan Haskvitz
For me, it was an easy choice. The lure of a career in business with its tax advantages, lucrative starting salary, and advancement based on my skills were enough to off-set the “touch the future” altruism of teaching. In economics terms, teaching was an opportunity cost and the benefits of a career in business were overwhelming.
It isn’t that I didn’t feel that teaching was a noble profession and I clearly benefited from having some exemplary teachers, but it didn’t take for me long to figure out that I wanted my own office more than my own classroom.
Choosing a degree in business especially made sense; dollars and cents wise. The classes were always interesting and I could apply almost everything I learned to the real world. Courses in economics, law, and sales promotion all had real life applications. My teaching preparation friends were taking education philosophy and education history classes taught by professors who, by and large, hadn’t been in a classroom in years, if at all. Even their methods classes were usually taught by instructors who had no record of achievement in the classroom leaving my friends having to look back to their days in public school for ideas on how to teach.
Anyway, I digress as the real reason I selected a career in business was money. There was the excitement of closing a deal and almost everything, every day was related to the acquisition of money. Since my parents were hard working, but still quite poor, I wanted to make them proud. Indeed, when I graduated I had five goals for my life. Two were personal, and three were based on money. Even the personal ones ended up being related to my business career. I was proud of my choices. It only took me two years in business to find myself driving a real Shelby Cobra to work, living in a great bachelor apartment, and being able to take two hour lunches. My company was paying my expenses to earn my MBA and I could even work at home at times. I had my office, my secretary, my parking spot, and access to the executive lunch room. Life was good.
So, what would have happened if I would have become a teacher? First, the starting salary. I would be making $20,000 to $30,000 less per year. Yes, teachers are alleged to only work ten months, but they are not paid for the other two months. Worse, I knew that teachers have to constantly return to university to upgrade their skills and meet credential requirements. They were rewarded with slight income increases as they moved columns, but they had to face other realities. First, they had to pay for those courses and secondly, the columns topped out. In other words, even if they were the best teacher in the world they could only make a salary that was designed to be fair for all. Try that in business. Imagine the best salesperson getting the same as the worst or not being able to negotiate one’s own salary based on your accomplishments. The National Teachers Hall of Fame has over 100 inductees all of whom make the same as every other teacher in their district with similar experience and education. Do you think that the inductees in the National Football Hall of Fame make the same as their teammates in similar positions? Business is based on performance. I wanted to be paid for my performance.
As an aside, teachers’ pay money out of their pocket, sometimes in excess of $500, for classroom supplies. Those in the business world would be surprised at that and would ask why your employer didn’t buy what you needed. I found no answer.
So, on average, after 30 years without any significant changes becoming a teacher would cost me well over a half a million dollars and probably much more. But it could be nastier. There is also the uncertainty of teacher retirement plans as some states may not make their complete actuarial payment every year. And, as Time reported, there is almost a $500 billion shortfall for funding teacher pensions and that gap is growing. Of course I didn’t know that when I made my decision to stick with business, but I am not surprised. I wanted to have a more secure retirement based on my own investments and backed by a company I could count on as opposed to elected officials who could be manipulated by the whims of those reluctant to pay increased taxes. Yes, some industries have pension plans that have failed, but I still had the ability to put money into my own retirement plans and manage them myself. I also discovered that in California, as well as several other states, if I was a public school teacher over 66 percent of what I earned working at jobs that paid Social Security would be cut. It is called the Windfall Provision and is totally unfair, but apparently teachers didn’t have the clout to remove this financial punishment. So if I worked at jobs paying Social Security and was scheduled to make $1000 a month at retirement, the government would cut that to $300. If I was married and my spouse had Social Security benefits I would not be entitled to them as well.
I also knew that to be a teacher in California required at least four years of college plus a year of teacher preparation. By sticking to my business goals that amount of money and time could have given me a master’s of business administration and the difference in salary is startling. According to a NACE study, I would be making an averaging starting salary of $70,000 while those students in education averaged a little over $48,600. The master’s degree is worth nearly $12,000 a year more for an MBA and the college costs in time and money are the same. It just wasn’t adding up to select a teaching career especially when it could very possibly cost me a million dollars in lost wages.
Women Leaders Missing
Of course, I knew I would be working longer hours and not have the benefit of a union to protect me. But I also knew that I was confident in what I could do and the possibility of one day being my own boss. This leadership dream is something that is missing in education, especially among women. In an AASA study of the 13,728 superintendents only 1,984 were women even though 72 percent of all teachers are women. Add to that the fact that 75 percent of superintendents did not teach at the elementary level and only 130 were former elementary school teachers. Finally, as most experienced teachers know, coaching provides an excellent step up to administration positions with a sizable majority of superintendents indicating they had a coaching assignment while working as a teacher or building administrator. This was looked at as having leadership experience by those doing the hiring. Having students who excelled in the classroom apparently doesen’t count as much. This results in a quandary as few elementary teachers have opportunities for head coaching assignments. On the other hand, women in business also face an uphill battle with only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by females, according to CNNMoney. It may be of interest to note that by contrast 36 percent of business leaders in the burgeoning marijuana industry are women. Just saying.
An early report indicated that since 1996 teachers’ salaries have risen one percent and business majors 12 percent, according to a study by Sylvia A. Allegretto and Sean P. Corcoran (1). In terms of comparing wages for those with similar education, the authors found that since 1979 teacher wages relative to those of other similar workers have dropped 13.1%. And, when comparing those with comparable skill requirements such as accountants, reporters, registered nurses and inspectors, teachers earned 14.1% less when comparing hours worked.
The cost of teacher benefits is also a concern. Since 1994, the disadvantage in wages has not been offset by improved benefits, according to the Allegretto and Corcoran study. For example, teachers in 2002 received 19.3% of their total compensation in benefits, which was more than the 17.9% benefit share of compensation of professionals.
As a teacher I would have to work about 190 days a year. That would leave me significant time to get another job, travel, or upgrade my skills as a teacher. That was a potentially awesome benefit, but I knew there was more involved. This was proven in a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that shows that American elementary school teachers spend more hours actually teaching students than peers in any other surveyed country and the fact that teachers frequently have to spend their vacation time taking classes to maintain their certification. SchoolsMatter reports that 62 percent of teachers have other jobs. The New York Times repeats this figure.
Administrators Can Have it All
There is a bright side for teachers. If you become an administrator you are richly rewarded. Even at an average sized middle school, the principal can earn more than a nursing administrator running a large hospital who is responsible for supervising more staff, clients who are sick, dying, or worse, and also evaluating personnel. The rewards for administrators are even better if they reach the superintendent level. In fact, being a school superintendent is truly a gift from the benefit gods when it comes to income. In one California school district with very few problems the salary and benefit package was over $250,000, which could provide a lifetime retirement of over $130,000 per year after 30 years in education and Fox Business reports that superintendents in 12 states make more than the governors.Sweet. Of course that is the exception. However, in the business world I knew that if I did well I would be rewarded accordingly or I could find better opportunities elsewhere. A teacher has to deal with step and column.
As for stressful jobs, Salary.com ranked teaching as the 10th most stressful occupation. So those vacation days apparently are both coveted and needed by educators. I mean to be in the same category for stress as military personnel, fire and police, and surgeons does shed some light on the importance of teaching and its demands.
The average turnover for all teachers is 17 percent, and in urban school districts specifically, the number jumps to 20 percent. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.
There is a different type of pressure in business. Essentially, it is to stay viable. Usually that means solvent. Either you are trying to stay in business or helping someone stay in business by doing more business. The pressure is difficult to assess as some companies treasure their employees and others try to squeeze them dry. Long hours and pressure from above are not unusual in the business. However, if you are good at your job the financial rewards usually come or you can start your own business or take a chance on moving. Teachers may find themselves literally stuck in a job if they find that their years of experience don’t count at another district when they try to leave.
Another concern when making a career choice is what you face on a daily basis. In the business world that could mean facing customers, designing plans, making changes, checking spreadsheets and more, but it does not mean facing 20 to 200 or more students and their parents on a daily basis. Customer complaints are usually dealt with an apology, a return of funds, or a force of denial. Legal action can be brought as well. A teacher has to answer to something that was said or done from the standpoint of an eight-year-old. Conferences with a parent, child, teacher and administrator are legendary. In many cases the story told by the child is denied by the teacher with an explanation. Whether it is accepted or not is based on the way the administrator backs up the teacher or parent. It could go either way with the administrator trying to stop the allegations from going to his or her superiors and the parent seeking redress or removal of the child from that teacher’s classroom or even the district. In the business world decisions are usually made on a dollars and cents basis. In education such objective evidence is seldom seen.
Education that may not pay off
A teacher who wants to become an administrator must go through an administrator education program. These take time and require financial obligations. The result may not even result in their selection as an administrator. The MBA may take additional courses, but they make the individual a more attractive candidate for future jobs. In education a candidate with “too much” education could be considered too expensive for a school district. Filling a job with the least experience, qualified teacher is an interesting corundum for a school district. Given a choice, would a district hire the most experienced and educated candidate or the least expensive?
Sadly, an individual who had an administrator credential, two bachelor degrees, and a master’s degree went to a California beach community and applied for the job. His background was impressive and filled with accomplishments. Every month he returned to check on his application as he knew the district was hiring. Knowing he was driving a long distance to make these visits, a secretary took pity and told him that he was never going to get hired because he was too expensive for the district. They were looking for new teachers that cost less. The word on the street is get the job first and afterwords go back for your advanced degree.
Schools of education are staffed by well-meaning professors who are usually far removed from the classroom and may be involved in the “publish or perish” syndrome in some cases. A successful classroom teacher is seldom chosen to teach at these institutions even though it was recommended by the national accreditation program. The result is classes are that are more theory with application of methods and curriculum classes awaiting student teaching assignments. The student teacher mentor who assist these future educators may not be the best for them. What are the requirements for these teachers of teachers? Do student teachers evaluate mentor teachers? Are student teachers left in the classroom to fend for themselves as the master teacher takes the time to float around the campus after a couple of weeks of observation?
Interestingly, the leading causes of teachers leaving the classroom is a lack of respect and support. How to deal with these is never mentioned in any teaching preparation program I have found. In the business world if negative data such as this was provided there would be an immediate reaction to stem the loss. When W. Edward Deming went to Japan to help that country’s manufacturing industry he came up with a multiple point plan. This plan was implemented and enabled great improvements to be made. How many of these do you think school administrators would be willing to make to improve education and teacher retention?
Create a constant purpose toward improvement.
Adopt the new philosophy. Be prepared for a major change in the way business is done. It’s about leading, not simply managing.
Stop depending on inspections.
Improve constantly and forever. Emphasize training and education so everyone can do their jobs better. Encourage staff to learn from one another
Provide a culture and environment for effective teamwork.
Don’t simply supervise – provide support and resources so that each staff member can do his or her best.
Be a coach instead of a policeman
Figure out what each person actually needs to do his or her best. Emphasize the importance of participative management and transformational leadership.
Make workers feel valued, and encourage them to look for better ways to do things. Ensure that your leaders are approachable and that they work with teams to act in the company’s best interests.
Eliminate management by objectives.
Provide support and resources so that production levels and quality are high and achievable. Measure the process rather than the people behind the process.
Reading through that list it is apparent that education could learn a great deal from business. When I was visiting Baylor University I saw such an education leadership class using a business textbook. It was refreshing and certainly shows that the two fields don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Knowing the financial deficits in teaching and the stress it is no wonder that the teaching occupation is stuck with George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman quote, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” label. Is that true, hardly. But it is used consistently when people brow beat teachers with such half truths as you don’t have to work holidays, you get great benefits, you have a guaranteed job.
Again, more negativity toward teachers. In fact, outside of lawyer jokes those about teachers are the most vindictive. Why is that? Perhaps it is because teachers deal with millions of students every day and it only takes one remark or action to taint the whole bunch. Or perhaps it is because business people are trained to protect themselves. They can take classes in business law, public relations, sales promotion, and offer incentives to the public to praise their work. When a firm donates something it is usually in the newspaper and on social media. When an educator donates their time it is seldom mentioned. Teachers don’t trumpet their successes, business leaders do.
So the decision to choose teaching over business can be boiled down to one main question: Is it job security over financial gain? Once a teacher has tenure they may be set in that job for life providing the educator follows the rules. In business there is no such security blanket.
Stress, chances for leadership, a desire to serve society, working less days, and the difference between a gold watch and a crayon written thank you note can’t be measured in terms of dollars.
And, yes, I choose education after a brief fling in business. I still have the crayon note and I treasure it more than the million dollars. Did I just say that out-loud?
About the Author: National Hall of Fame teacher has accumulated over 30 state, national and international awards based on the success of his program. His work have been featured in books, periodicals, and on electronic media. He also worked in business. He is retired and does inservices.
(1) Sylvia A. Allegretto. Sean P. Corcoran American Economic Review and the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.