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Dateline Detroit: Educators–Cheaper by the Dozen

By Judi Markowitz

Mrs. Markowitz (front row, right) with her Detroit film class at the Motown Museum in 2019
Mrs. Markowitz (front row, right) with her Detroit film class at the Motown Museum in 2019

Teachers are in an elite group of underpaid and underappreciated professionals. Their workload is monumental, and many people don’t have the vaguest idea about the effort that goes into their craft. Teachers are definitely shortchanged while procuring their certifications.

The national average starting salary for an entry level position this year was $38,617 and the hourly rate —approximately $15.98. They are in competition with McDonald’s and Amazon. Teachers are bringing home about $2,000 less than a decade ago, in large part because they are now contributing to benefits that were once covered by their school districts. Many districts have eliminated pensions altogether. After completing a four- to five-year university stint, new teachers are behind the eight ball.

In 1991, I was elated to be paid $6,000 a year to teach two classes. I had taken time off to have a family and was ready to join the work force once again. I interviewed for a part-time position teaching Debate and Forensics — I got the job! It was perfect for my schedule and my four children. I hadn’t taught in several years and I was nervous.

I remember thinking that now, I only knew how to be a mom, and I had to shove down my insecurities. The one thing that kept my fears at bay was the fact that I loved my profession, and these classes would be challenging as well as gratifying. I taught part-time for nine years, until I was offered a full-time position. My salary was $48,000 in the beginning of a new decade — the year was 2000.

The reality is that no one enters the teaching profession to become wealthy. Besides the monetary disappointment, the amount of work a teacher incurs daily is mind-boggling. I taught high school English for 34 years and before I retired, there wasn’t one evening I didn’t grade papers.

In fact, I called myself a grading machine. Even when I went on vacation with my family, I took research papers and homework assignments with me. When at sporting events for my children, I always took along papers and graded them in the bleachers. I had one eye on my sons and the other on the assignments.

I am always incensed when I hear people comment that teachers have a cushy job because, after all, they get winter and spring breaks and the entire summer off. What job could compare to that? These criticisms invariably end with a salary discussion. — teachers don’t deserve a pay increase. I have always thought that if I could get these naysayers in my classroom for a day, they would see the light — or run for shelter from the onslaught of teenagers.

Many people don’t realize that teachers don’t get paid during the summer months. They can opt to have their salary spread out over the summer and this reduces their biweekly paycheck. Some teachers must get an additional job during this time to make ends meet. As for the breaks during the school year — there are no breaks from the workload. The paper chase is on continuously.

At the high-school level, I had five classes a day and on average there were 30 students or more in each class. That meant I taught approximately 150 students every day. Lesson plans must be on point, and assignments are usually uploaded to the teacher’s website or hard copies printed for students as well — all time-consuming endeavors.

Research, reading and re-reading novels presented in class is a must. Then discussions topics, whether for small groups or the entire class, are made to coordinate with the goals and objectives of the lessons. Most of the preparation is usually done at home.

Education doesn’t happen by itself — teachers have to be on top of their game. They need to be engaging when spreading their expertise to the crowd. And yes, a teacher is definitely working the room — like an entertainer.

If a teacher doesn’t have an appealing style, students’ attention can drift away. They may try to sneak their phone out of a pocket or purse (which students think you don’t notice), gaze out the window, and in some cases fall asleep. You know your style is lackluster when these things occur. Teachers are on stage all day and students will give a bad review if the performance isn’t up to par.

Besides all these responsibilities, a teacher also wears many hats. — they aren’t just instructors. Teachers may be a friend, a confidant and a mentor when students want to talk about personal issues. Students may seek out help to discuss parents, friendships, or employment affecting class work. Mental health concerns have escalated, and students need a safe haven to air their problems , so teachers accommodate in this arena as well.

Let’s not forget about correspondence. Since high school teachers typically have 150 students each day, there are countless emails and phone calls from parents, guardians, and even grandparents. Without a doubt, they are concerned and want a fast turnaround for their inquiry. Whether it’s about a homework assignment, an issue at home, a grade change —they want answers and reassurance.

The turnaround time to respond is usually 24 hours, and of course, this is done after school hours. So, the typical school day of seven hours extends well into the evening.

Parent-Teacher conferences are an evening affair as well. After teaching a full day, conferences are held twice yearly. They generally begin at 6:00pm and may end at 8:30pm. Parents line up to see each of their children’s teachers to discuss grades and overall performance. There is a five-minute time limit due to the sheer number of parents who come to find out the scoop about their kids. If time constraints become an issue, teachers can arrange to meet with the parent another day.

When the pandemic reared its ugly head in 2020, and schools shut down, the hammer hit hard on those who took teachers and their contributions for granted. Even those naysayers who claimed teaching was a breeze had an epiphany when they were home with their children for months on end. They finally could observe education firsthand with virtual learning in place.

Parents now had to navigate the learning curve along with their children. They came to the realization that a teacher has major responsibilities to deal with. My husband, Jeffrey, commented that he had never seen me work harder. Emails galore came in at all hours of the day and night from parents and students.

This self-proclaimed grading machine had to kick it up a notch. There was a never-ending stream of assignments completed, and students trapped at home, wanted to know their grades. Stress levels were at an all time high as parents observed their alienated children attempting to complete their schoolwork, while they had challenges working from home as well.

When schools finally opened their doors once again, it was gratifying to hear accolades from parents. Many came to the understating that their impression of teachers and their workload was completely skewed.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the teaching profession. There is now a definite shortage of teachers throughout the United States. If anyone is wondering why this is happening, just ask an incoming teacher about his or her salary. When faced with repaying student loans, and having enough money for rent, utilities, and food, teaching does not fit the bill anymore.

According to research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “The teacher shortage could reach 200,000 by 2025, up from 110,000 in 2018. This shortage of workers is due to a number of factors. Among them are pay, working conditions, lack of support, lack of autonomy, and the changing curriculum.” Unfortunately, teachers are leaving the profession in droves for greener pastures. Cash has become king.

And here is the saddest concern of all — school shootings. Prospective college of education students are opting out of the profession due to the alarming number of gun-related deaths and injuries in public schools.

Most school districts are requiring teachers to participate in the ALICE program — active shooter training. While this training encourages teachers and students to “fight back” when an intruder enters a room, it is still a scary proposition. A few districts are pushing teachers to learn how to shoot a gun and store it properly in their classroom. Teacher education programs do not come with target practice. Why would anyone want to enter a profession with these requirements in place?

Due to these escalating problems, veteran teachers are retiring at an alarming rate. The pandemic, coupled with heightened student behavioral needs and general exhaustion from the demands of the profession, are contributing to this exodus. As a result, public schools are in a serious bind. There aren’t even enough substitutes to fill in when teachers need to take a day or two off. The system is clearly collapsing.

Teachers deserve a livable wage, safety in the classroom, a realistic curriculum, and respect. The profession is endangered due to the dwindling number of students entering the teaching profession in the past few years. According to the Department of Education “53 percent of all public schools are reporting feeling understaffed at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.” Retaining teachers should be at the forefront — the primary focus.

People teach because they have a passion for the profession, concern for their students, and a desire to elevate academic levels. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”


Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.

Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.

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