Jonathan Zimmerman: American educators are paid as if our country were poor

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman, a resident of Pennsylvania and a professor of education and history at New York University, is teaching this semester at NYU's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana (jlzimm@aol.com). He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published in the fall by Yale University Press.]

Last year, an international study confirmed what American teachers already know: They're poorly paid. The average starting salary for an American high school teacher is roughly $32,000; with 15 years of experience, it goes up to $44,000.

In Germany, new teachers begin at $45,000! That's right: In their first year, German teachers earn more than Americans who have been toiling for a decade and a half.

As a fraction of America's wealth, the numbers look even worse. Veteran high school teachers in America earn almost exactly the same wage as our nation's per capita gross domestic product. Japanese teachers earn 50 percent more than the per capita GDP, while German and Dutch teachers make 75 percent more. In Switzerland and Korea, teachers earn twice the per capita GDP.

Then there's Africa.

On this continent, many teachers simply can't survive on what they make at school. When Africans run out of money, they say they're "broke as a teacher." Some teachers even try to keep their job a secret, and with good reason: Landlords refuse to rent to them, assuming they won't be able to pay on time.

The bleakest news comes out of Zimbabwe, where hyperinflation has reduced the average teacher salary to about $10 a month. That's why 25,000 teachers left the country last year and schools report 150,000 vacant teaching posts. People who remain in the profession supplement their income with other pursuits, including prostitution.

"I'm very ashamed and always regret it afterwards," one teacher and part-time prostitute told a British reporter, "but otherwise we would starve."

Believe it or not, life for Zimbabwean teachers is getting even worse. In the wake of the nation's disputed March 29 elections, President Robert Mugabe's supporters have been assaulting teachers who served as polling officers. In the event of a run-off, teachers say, Mr. Mugabe wants to make sure they're out of the way.

The tactic seems to be working. Another 1,700-plus teachers have fled the country over the past two months. Others have been forced to pay "repentance fees" -- in money or cattle -- for allegedly aiding the opposition.

The irony is that Mr. Mugabe himself was once a teacher, first in Zimbabwe and then here in Ghana. But he left the profession, a Ghanaian columnist wrote last year, and lucky for him. "If he had remained in Ghana," the columnist quipped, "he would still be a teacher -- hungry, ill-paid and overworked."

To be fair, Ghana's average teacher salary has been creeping up, to around $200 a month. But that's still not enough to support a family, especially when many teachers also purchase books and other instructional materials from their own pockets. So they leave the classroom for other jobs or leave the country, migrating to better-paying schools in Botswana and South Africa.

As the American situation reminds us, however, underpaying teachers is not just a matter of national wealth. Countries that value teachers pay them a decent wage by local standards. But in Ghana, as in America, nearly every kind of professional makes more than a teacher. And in both countries, most people seem to think that's OK.

"Sacrifices made by teachers have gone unappreciated, because of the perception that the teacher's reward is in heaven," a Ghanaian teacher union official complained in 2006, after an unsuccessful 10-week strike. "Let us enjoy part of that reward here on Earth."

Teachers aren't holding their breath for that to happen. Shortly after gaining its independence in 1957, Ghana committed itself to free and compulsory public education. But the country couldn't produce enough trained teachers to handle the influx of new students. So it hired "pupil teachers" -- that is, older students -- to watch over the younger ones. It also relaxed requirements for entering the profession, leading Ghanaians to conclude that "anybody could teach" -- and for a pittance, at that.

Here, too, Ghana has followed in America's footsteps. In the early 19th century, free public education in America spread so rapidly that schools hired any warm body they could find. Over time, states began to mandate formal preparation for teachers. But these requirements still haven't risen to the same level that other developed countries demand.

So teacher status lags, too. "Those who can't do, teach," laughed Woody Allen in his classic film, "Annie Hall," "and those who can't teach, teach gym." Germans and Japanese don't get the joke, but Americans do.

We simply can't shake the idea that anyone can become a teacher -- and that we don't have to pay them much.

On the other hand, it could be worse. American teachers have every right to complain about their low salaries compared to their counterparts in the developed world. But if they look to Africa, they might also count their blessings.

When I suggested that American teachers were poor, one of my colleagues here scoffed. "Poor?" she asked. "Try coming to Ghana." I'm glad that I did.

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Raul A Garcia - 6/4/2008

I taught in Johannesburg, RSA in 2003. I had a wonderful experience! Teaching history there, I feel I helped towards "recapturing" some of the history that country lost during apartheid. I made just under $12,000 US. enough to live on and pay expenses. When I returned after a year I filed my income tax and after consulting two different assessors I had to pay Uncle Sam $200.00. I made roughly three times as much the preceding year in the States and was returned several hundred dollars!