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The Price of Teaching

Even with a pay raise, teachers often struggle to make ends meet.

When Myron Hankie started teaching in 1966, his paycheck wasn’t much. But the job of teaching science was rewarding, and his students inspired him. By 1988, after 16 years of experience, he was making $28,000 a year — a good paycheck, but not enough to meet the demands of family life.

"I wanted my children to have a college education," Hankie said. "It was a tough decision because I really loved teaching. But it was the right thing to do."

Hankie left teaching to take a better-paying job as a computer consultant. He eventually started his own company, creating a steady revenue stream during his children’s college years. But after his two children graduated from college, he decided to return to the classroom. In 2000, he took a position teaching science at T.C. Williams High School.

"We are in the business of forming minds, and you can’t put a price on that," Hankie said. "Teachers are not regarded for the gravity of the job that they are doing, but I love every day — even the days that I’ve failed miserably."

Other teachers agree, saying that they are not motivated by salary. Mary Lou Smith, who has taught English at T.C. Williams for more than 20 years, takes a fatalistic approach to her paycheck.

"I just look at my pay and say ‘That’s what I’ve got,’" Smith said. "If I were motivated by the paycheck, I wouldn’t be here."

THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION’S BUDGET, which was proposed last month by Superintendent Rebecca Perry, includes funding to increase the pay scale for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree. Perry said that she would like to raise all salaries, but had to defer raising the starting salary for teachers with a master’s degree.

"In order to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, the Alexandria City Public School System pay scale must be competitive with surrounding school divisions," Perry wrote in the budget memorandum that accompanied the proposed budget. "This necessitates an adjustment to our current teacher pay scale."

According to a study conducted last year by the administration, neighboring jurisdictions have starting salaries ranging from $37,615 to $40,816 for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree. Perry’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2007 includes a new starting salary of $40,816 — putting Alexandria in the top tier of starting salaries for new teachers. The overall cost of raising the salaries is estimated at $2 million.

"Teachers are not paid enough," said T.C. Williams Principal John Porter. "It’s a very important job that requires a lot of work, and teachers should be paid more."

Porter knows what it’s like to try to live on a beginning teacher’s salary. In 1969, as a beginning social studies teacher in Alexandria, he received an annual salary of $6,800.

"It was very difficult to raise a family on $6,800," said Porter, who said that prospective teachers are often driven away from Alexandria because of the high cost of living. "It’s becoming more difficult to find people who want to go into teaching and education."

FINDING NEW TEACHERS who are willing to come to Alexandria, where the average single-family home costs $563,092, is difficult. Porter says that many potential teachers who investigate the housing market decide to seek employment elsewhere.

"Many potential job candidates have other offers that pay more and are less demanding," Porter said. "It costs a lot to live here — especially housing."

Raising the pay scale for new teachers is one way the school administration to combat the sticker shock of life in Alexandria. But the economic realities of living on a teacher’s salary will continue to provide obstacles for people like Hankie, who is enjoying his second career as a science teacher.

"The bottom line is that money that is distributed to teachers is part of the tax base," Hankie said. "And because of that, they will probably always be paid less than what they are worth."