When Matt Goldstein graduated in 2005 from Pennsauken High School in New Jersey, his dream was to finish college and return to the school as a teacher. In 2011, after serving as a substitute teacher for several years, Goldstein, 24, became a fulltime teacher at Pennsauken at a starting salary of $53,000.
While the starting salary was not Goldstein’s primary reason for accepting a teaching position in his hometown, he says the salary provides incentive to remain there.
“When you are able to live comfortably, without having to work a second job, it makes teaching a whole lot easier because you can focus on your job, without financial problems or distractions,” he says. “I think there are many parents who understand how hard we work. The community often has ways to show their appreciation to teachers and we appreciate that.”
Goldstein embodies what policymakers and public schools advocates have known for quite some time: For students to achieve at high levels, schools must recruit the best and the brightest to enter the teaching profession – and a competitive salary and benefits package not only attracts talented people to the profession, it incentivizes them to stay.
Throughout the state and for several decades, citizens have been demonstrating that they understand this by supporting the bargaining efforts of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) to pay teachers a salary comparable with workers in other professions requiring similar licensing, education and work experience. In May, aggressive NJEA campaign efforts going back to the 1980s paid off when the Franklin Lakes School District became the 200th district in the state to agree to pay new teachers at least $50,000.
“We are still making progress toward our goal of ‘no teacher making less than $50K on the first day,’ although progress has been slowed by the current bargaining climate,” says Bob Willoughby, NJEA associate director of research. “Why should teachers be underpaid on their first day on the job?”
So far, NJEA has boosted starting pay to $50,000 in one of every three of the state’s 591 districts (34 percent). No easy feat, considering that in 2008 New Jersey had only 25 districts that paid “$50K.” That number jumped to 100 districts in 2010. With the addition of Franklin Lakes ($50,885 starting in 2013-14), NJEA reached its current milestone. The average starting pay for teachers in New Jersey is $48,372 for 2011-2012.
Secretary Arne Duncan called for a $60,000 starting salary back in August 2011. “The field of teaching is poised for change,” Duncan said. “Many bright and committed young people are attracted to teaching, but surveys show they are reluctant to enter the field for the long-haul. They see it as low-paying and low-prestige.”
Kerry McHugh-Moles, a teacher at George B. Fine Elementary School in Pennsauken, says higher pay is critical to help transform the teaching profession to one that garners greater respect.
“Although my family and I hold educators on a pedestal, that opinion is not always shared by others,” says McHugh-Moles, who has a graduate degree as a reading specialist. “The negative publicity from the general public and politicians can be very disheartening.”
The higher pay can change that perception, she says, while attracting top undergraduate students to the education field who might otherwise choose the technology sector, finance, or engineering.
“Many college graduates struggle to find employment, let alone a position that pays $50,000 without previous experience in the profession,” says McHugh-Moles, who like Goldstein is a graduate of public schools in Pennsauken, which borders Camden.
Goldstein agrees that fair starting salaries can attract top undergraduate students to the profession.
“The combination of a good salary, benefits, and making a difference in the lives of future generations make for plenty of great reasons for them to become teachers,” he says.
When McHugh-Moles started as a teacher in 2002 in Pennsauken, her starting salary was approximately $43,000.
“I most certainly did not choose the teaching profession for the money,” she says. “I have remained in the profession because of my love of teaching. However, with increases in workload, changes in programs, and lack of public support, the salary has been an added incentive to keep me in the profession helping each student achieve his or her full potential.”