By Michael McCotter, published in the Hartford Courant, 10/29/2019
Helping students discover and pursue their dreams is one of the greatest rewards of teaching. Engaging students in learning is a passion that ignites a fire inside of me that overflows into my teaching.
Entering the teaching profession wasn’t a career choice driven by a desire for financial rewards. My colleagues and I don’t live luxurious lives, but the promise of a secure retirement reassures us that after years of receiving a modest income, we can end our careers with a modest pension and peace of mind.
Growing up, I strived to do my best in school so that I could go to a college that would best prepare me for a career in education. I chose a college that gave me the most experience and that would shape me into the teacher my students deserve. However, like so many of my colleagues, I am left with an exorbitant amount of college debt. Student loan payments eat up a large chunk of my paycheck.
Teachers must continue to educate themselves, and a master’s degree is a condition of employment in our profession. The hope is that our education and advanced degrees will help us secure jobs that pay enough to be financially stable. Sadly, that is not true for the majority of educators. My modest teaching salary does not allow me to fully pay for the advanced degree necessary to maintain my teaching certification in Connecticut, so I am forced to take on additional debt to further my education and keep my job.
Teachers are paid less than those with comparable education who have chosen different career paths — ones that do not necessarily impact the future of our state.
The lessons of the 2008 recession are not lost on young teachers, who know the impact that the stock market crash had on family members’ 401(k) retirement plans. Being in a profession with little extra money to save for the future, we should not have to rely on the stock market to dictate how or if we can retire. That’s why the state teacher pension program is so important and keeps so many of us in the job we love. This defined benefit pension serves as an incentive for us to stay.
Young teachers cite many reasons for why they leave the profession: Low wages, attacks on the profession, job insecurity, school funding cuts and corporate reformers trying to privatize our schools are among them. In addition, we are not provided the resources we need and are constantly given mandates from politicians with no teaching experience. Imagine receiving a pink slip every May explaining that you may not have a job in the fall due to budget cuts. That has happened to me, four years in a row. It’s demoralizing, and yet another reason so many teachers leave the profession.
The promise of a secure retirement ensures that after our years of service we will be able to retire with dignity. Instead of attacking one of the cornerstones that allows us to stay in the profession — our retirement pension — we should enhance teacher salaries in Connecticut and across the country and improve the status of teaching. Efforts to eliminate our pensions drive teachers out of the profession.
Teaching is a calling, a passion. Creating lifelong learners is the greatest reward for teachers, but it should not come at the expense of an uncertain retirement, where we worry that our pensions could suddenly be diminished or depleted due to market conditions out of our control.
Connecticut is known for its strong public schools, and that is due to the highly trained and educated teachers in our classrooms. We need the security of our teacher pension to help recruit the best and brightest teachers to the profession. Our students deserve no less.
Michael McCotter teaches at Southwest Elementary School in Torrington. This is his sixth year in the classroom.