I ran across a colleague yesterday at a graduation party for a former student that we both shared. Tim left teaching a few years back for a career selling insurance. I was pretty certain he was making the wrong decision at the time and tried to convince him to change his mind. “Tim, do you realize how unpredictable sales can be?” I asked.  “What is your family going to do if you have an off-month? Teaching may not pay well, but it always pays!”

Tim’s mind was made up, however. “In teaching,” he argued as he packed up his classroom, “you have the kids to motivate you but nothing else. You have no control over your work and you’ll always be at the bottom of the totem pole. I want more and will never have it in education.”

When I crossed paths with Tim yesterday, I had to know if he’d found the “something more” he was looking for. “Absolutely,” he said, “I get to change lives by helping people to prepare for emergencies AND have a shot at a six figure salary someday too. As a teacher, you’ll only have the chance for one of those two realities and I can have both. You’ll change lives, but never make six figures!”

“So you’re making six figures?”  I asked.

“Heck no!” he replied. “But I have a chance to. And what’s even better is that I control how much I make.  I wake up every morning knowing that my effort will determine how much income I bring in. If I make enough phone calls, hand out enough business cards and network with enough people, my salary will rise. My income is up to me—not up to some predetermined schedule that will never change regardless of how hard I work. As a competitive guy, I like that!”

The longer I listened to Tim, the more jealous I became because I’m a competitive guy too. My competitive streak shows up in almost every aspect of my work. I’m constantly working to improve my teaching practice, spending hundreds of hours reading, writing and reflecting. I’m the first to arrive most days and one of the last to leave. My instruction is often on the cutting edge, and I try to spread the new knowledge that I gain among my peers through formal and informal professional development sessions.  My hard work has earned me a reputation as an expert in areas ranging from teaming to technology.

But this extra effort consumes most of my personal life. When people ask me what I like to do for fun, I’m often at a loss for words because I don’t have much time for fun. I’m too swamped by grading papers, developing lessons, testing new technology or showing others how to teach more effectively. I’ve worked altruistically for so long, thriving on the idea that my efforts improve education in my classroom, school, district and state. Rewarded with titles and praise, I’ve seen my sacrifices as noble and worthy of someone living a life of service.

Despite these sacrifices, I make the same amount of money as any other teacher who has 14 years of experience in our state. Better yet, someone could walk into our profession tomorrow with no experience in the classroom but 15 years of experience in a field beyond teaching and make more than I do!

Why, then, do I work as hard as I do? I’m just not sure anymore.

What I am sure of is that our efforts to keep our best educators in the classroom will consistently come up short until we invest time and energy into designing teacher compensation plans that incentivize accomplishment.

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