Op-ed: We must address the affordability crisis faced by Berkeley teachers

Recently a fifth grade student in my class told me that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. I was incredibly pleased, a bright young person deciding that they want to be an educator is an amazing thing. It also made me feel pretty proud that perhaps I had played a role in inspiring such an ambition.

However, another part of me wonders what will the teaching profession look like ten years from now when she is graduating from college? Will it be a profession that can be a sustainable career for a lifetime or will it have become such a hard-scrabble, low paying job that no one will want to teach in public schools anymore?

There are two major crises facing public school teachers in Berkeley and the rest of country.

The first is an affordability crisis, particularly acute in the Bay Area, which means many teachers are leaving the area or the profession because they cannot afford to live and work here anymore. Teachers are leaving their jobs because they because their monthly checks don’t go nearly as far as they once did in this area with the high cost of housing, living expenses and health insurance which causes instability in our school communities.

Students and families deserve BUSD teachers who are able to live where they teach, are able to stay in their jobs for the long term and are free from the stress of struggling to make ends meet when a dollar is worth less and less. The cost of living in our area has increased almost 10% in the last 5 years and yet salaries have not risen at anywhere close to the same rate.

The cost of teachers’ health benefits have also skyrocketed, in some cases as much as 40% in the last couple of months alone, and this only deepens the affordability crisis. Teachers and families need to work together to solve this problem. Teachers in Berkeley need to have compensation that makes it possible for them to stay in our schools.

The second major crisis facing public school teachers is an attack that has been going on for many years now about the very nature of our profession and what public education should be.

Corporate education reformers have been pushing an agenda that blames teachers for all the problems in public education and seek to undermine the profession itself by de-skilling the work of teachers and enforcing unattainable accountability measures. Not only do we need to professionalize the pay of teachers to keep us in our schools for the long term but we also need to understand and respect the complex work that is teaching.

A school is like an ecosystem and teachers are part of a group of humans trying to raise the level of another group of humans—there is no blueprint, scripted curriculum or standardized test for this kind of work—and it requires immense amounts of collaboration, respect and risk-taking. Partnering with parents and our community to do what we know is best for all our students is how we make this process work—and like an effective ecosystem in nature we can only truly thrive when every organism works in harmony with every other organism.

When I think about my student, and the future person she will become, I hope very much that she does choose the teacher profession. I have found my job to be fulfilling and life-changing and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. I also hope that the teaching profession she encounters in ten years is one where teachers are paid enough to live in the communities they serve, are able to afford health care and rent and feed their families, and maybe even have enough left over to take a vacation in the summer instead of working a second or third job.

I hope that teachers are valued and respected and that together teachers and families can create and sustain the schools Berkeley students deserve. This vision can only begin by addressing the affordability crisis Berkeley teachers are facing right now. Families and the community should support world class compensation for our teachers that allows them to continue to work in our district and live sustainably. Only then can we work on some of our bigger goals and together nurture our amazing BUSD educational ecosystem.

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Dana Blanchard is a member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers organizing team. She currently teaches at LeConte Elementary and has previously been a district teacher leader around BUSD’s Response to Instruction and Intervention program.