When Special Educators Find New Jobs

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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The Builders Tried To Build

My parents were born in the 1930's. They are stereotypical of the Builder Generation in every aspect of their being.

They are hard workers.

They saved a lot of money from their middle class working years to enjoy a lovely retirement. They held their family to a high standard.

They kept their home tidy.

They were great neighbors.

They minded their own business but were eager to help anyone in need.

They were in church every Sunday and helped in various capacities.

They paid cash for everything they purchased because they were fiscally conservative.

They were Kennedy Democrats.

They loved their children.

They kept a secret to the grave.

Their belief was staunch in the ideal that once you get a job which pays your bills, that is your job for life.

You're loyal to the employer, no questions asked.

My Dad retired from his job after working dutifully, rarely, if EVER, taking a sick day, after 50 years with the same company. The folks were thrilled with the gold-plated mantle clock and mention in the company newsletter.

For the generation which found an honest day's work as its own reward, this was high praise.

X'ers Know Who They Are

But along came the subsequent generation. We who endured Viet Nam, Iran Contra, the Persian Gulf War, punk rock, mullets, parachute pants, the Challenger explosion, and 911 and have witnessed one of the longest wars in which our country has ever been engaged in the country of Afghanistan.

My generation sees that life is dynamic, changing quickly, heaped and mounted with new technology presented nearly daily.

We raised latch key kids.

We have lower divorce rates than the Boomer Generation.

We are not representative of America during the 1960's when most of us were born because we typically need two incomes to survive, have more than one vehicle, and are further in debt.

We are project-driven, questioning-but-compliant-until-it's-clearly-wrong, ready to do right providers for our family.

We are willing to move when a more secure and better-suited position comes along.

We will give you your two weeks' notice because it's the right thing to do, but we're more than willing to move on to something better…and do so in a heartbeat.

Finding Greener Pastures

According to the United States Department of Labor, Special Education Teachers are in demand and with a projected 8% increase in the need for Teachers between now and 2026, the median income of $58,980 annually may be enticing enough to bring new people into this specialized area within the profession.

But I promise you, I do not make the median income. I make far less because I live in the South. In my state, the Minimum Teacher Salary By Rank (order of highest paying to lowest paying) saw my district pretty much right in the middle of the pack. The kicker? With more than a decade and a half's worth of experience, my now former district chooses to pay Teachers coming from other states well below their earned ranking. Instead, I started out my first year at first year Teacher's salary. While several in my district tried to convince me this was a state mandated rule, a simple call to my State Department of Education clarified one fact: it is a by-district decision.

It's All About the Benjamins

Budgets are what they are; I respect the fact that a district attempts to remain operational "in the black," but my family's budget is what it is because of my level of pay (along with that of my husband who is also a civil servant).

I'm not ashamed to share that my parents may cringe to think I've publicly shared my income. But it's quite simply ridiculous when compared to other careers requiring similarly high levels of education.

I also know that when I left my home state of Michigan, I was earning $53,000. I was prepared for a disparity because of the region's reputation for lower pay as well as a lower cost of living, and the weather is a heck of a lot better. What left me feeling most unprepared was the fact that a district was unwilling to pay me for my years. Bah humbug!

Pay Slay

I loved my students, I loved my team members, I loved my class' families, I loved my school. I loved getting paid, but it frustrated me to no end knowing that the person who would potentially step into my role has not yet completed their Bachelor's degree in Education, has no Special Education credential, and would be making within $5,000 of what I was making.

Consider that most Teachers obtain their Master's degree (or better). Most states place a requirement on Educators' licenses to do so or to earn at least 18 credit hours towards an Education-related Master's.

The typical Master's degree is approximately 32-36 credit hours.

Compared to other professions, we know that Teachers are grossly underpaid. With a Master's degree, Statisticians earn an average of $80,500; an Occupational Therapist's median income is $81,950; public school administrators average $92,000.

Teacher says, "Huh?"

So Why Can't Peter Pay Paul?

Yeah, you're right: I shouldn't be in it just for the money. To you I say that money is NOT my sole motivation for being an Education professional.

Further I say that the local grocery store doesn't allow me to pay with stored up warm feelings I get from seeing a student achieve a difficult goal on which they have been working for two school years.

My local utility company frowns on accepting precious mementos given me by my students who have selected them with great care at the dollar store and which mean more to me than diamonds. My gifted multi-colored unicorn will not be accepted in exchange for a month's worth of lights, cable, trash, and Internet service.

Getting' My Search On

Teachers deserve equitable pay commensurate with their education and experience. This singular thought ruminated in my head for several months while I thought about what I wanted to do: move or stay.

After a particular exchange with a member of the Powers That Be, I decided to start searching for a new position which would pay me more fairly. Sometimes one event can help us find needed inspiration and motivation.

Fleeing Pay Perdition

Late in the Winter, I decided it was time to make a move…an attempt to better fortify the family coffers…to get ahead a bit…to retire without having to live in a cardboard box in a friend's backyard.

Activating my network of Teacher friends and acquaintances, I clarified my specifics as I made at attempt to make more dough, to have more cheddar, to earn closer to that national average, heck-to make what the top-ranking district in my state was paying for a minimum.

Mind you, the top ranking district minimum in my state for a first year Teacher was higher than I was being paid as a third year Teacher in my current district-by $8,000. Yeeup. Two Master's degrees, part of an Ed.D., and nearly 20 years experience and I hadn't even begun to tickle the $40,000 mark.

An interview was offered. It went well. The job was given to an non-credentialed person because they were less expensive and knew people in the district. When I called to ask for specific reasons, I was told their choice was made because the person understood the inner workings and dynamics of the district.

Oh. They knew someone who knew the RIGHT someone.

It was in that moment that it became clear that people searching for positions in my part of the country needed to get one of those: a Someone Who Knows Someone.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

As my network made advancements in finding available Special Education Teacher positions, it wasn't long before a friend texted. "This could be a perfect fit." I applied on a Monday. I got a phone call on a Tuesday. I had an interview on a Wednesday. I was offered the job on a Thursday. On Friday, I was told my years would be honored and my pay would increase beyond that of my now-former district by nearly 20%.

The Golden Rule

Here's something to remember: your network will only go to work for you IF YOU ARE A GOOD TEACHER AND A GOOD PERSON WHO SUPPORTS RECIPROCALLY.

Not to toot my own horn, but my parents raised my siblings and I to respect the value of an honest day's work. Along the way we also l earned to find a career we LOVE. The most important thing they taught us: The Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. If you're willing to help your friends, they'll be willing to help you.

Equity Schmequity

It's ridiculous to me that we're STILL having conversations about pay disparity. A 33 year old female friend was sharing with me today that she has been working at her company for 8 years. During that time, she has had all glowing performance reviews. She has had several promotions. Her immediate supervisor constantly tells her how great her job performance is and how the company values her. She has a Bachelor's degree in her male-dominated field and hundreds of hours of professional development with numerous field-specific certifications. The male intern (who has been in community college on and off for five years but has no degree) earns $5,000 less than she does. Males sharing the same role in this construction industry business, all who have less responsibility than she has, earn no less than $10,000 per year MORE than my friend.

Are we too afraid to toot our own horns? Are we too nervous about losing our jobs and not bold enough to push for pay?

I Am Teacher. Hear Me Roar.

I have chosen not to be afraid. Even with the voices of my parents words about loyalty echoing in my brain, maybe I heard the voice of Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas a little louder reminding me that I have worked hard to get where I am and I am my own advocate. I am to respect myself enough to speak up.

When it became evident that mo' money was not in my future at my current position, it was time to respect myself and start applying. I am a Special Education Teacher. Aren't we a rare, precious commodity worth zillions of dollars?

Reality Bites

Nope, we're not. But I figure since I'm one of 267,995 Special Education Teachers in a job market expected to grow upwards of 8% within a decade, maybe-just MAYBE-I'd be able to find something. Taking into account the typical pay for the area but seeking to get paid for my years, I decided that if it was meant to be, something would come along.

The Fates agreed and just like when Katy Perry accepted her role on America Idol, "I got paid," of course, she makes a little more than the average Teacher, but hey, we're both happy with our contracts.

Now that I have a new job for the upcoming school year, the next source of pain has settled in: two months with no paycheck.

Like the thwacking slap of a wet towel against bare skin, my summer resounds with the loud noise of a simple refrain: "I get my first paycheck from my new district September 10th. I am happy to pay that bill after that date."

The. Struggle. Is. REAL!!!

Stand For Something Or Step Aside

It seems that a popular cry from society today is that Teachers don't get paid enough. Okay, great. So what's going to be done about it?

Across the nation, Teachers have taken it to their state capitols to remind the politicos that a state without its Teachers is a state which isn't meeting the Free Appropriate Education Act. A state which isn't meeting its FAPE obligation is a state with lots of funding obstacles set in place once the district gets back to work.

We are NEEDED.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Again I ask, is it really so radical to love our jobs as Special Educators while asking to be fairly compensated? Again I say, no.

On any given day the Teachers in our ranks are bitten, scratched, change diapers, deal with a plethora of medical devices, get punched, yelled at, called obscene names, read mountains of paperwork, create mountains of paperwork, develop and deliver lessons, decipher learning styles, do parking lot or cafeteria duty, interact with families, continue to learn about new student-related issues, adapt, overcome, inspire, love, motivate, care for students, pray for students, love students, buy things for students, adapt, overcome, and do it all while loving what they do. Loving what WE do.

Stand By Me, Stand By You

It's a pretty safe bet that no Special Education Teacher alive thinks they're ever going to make a six figure income.

For those rare birds who do, the rest of us stand behind you and applaud your good fortune. Until that day when we stand together in our six-figuredness, we will stand together in our goals of growing extra-special, great kids.

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin