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Teacher pay in Utah
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OPINION: Want better teachers? Stop paying them all the same amount.

(Photo: Deseret News)

The Utah Foundation released a report yesterday on how teacher pay in Utah stacks up to the rest of the nation, and it stopped me in my tracks.

The average salary for a teacher in Utah, according to this report, is $47,604. Compared to the national average of $60,483, our teachers are making about $13,000 less than the rest of the state.

Just think about how much money that is for a second. Thirteen thousand dollars.

That’s not just a little bit of a difference, that’s a life-changing difference. You add a thousand dollars to your paycheck each month, and you’ve nearly got enough to cover a mortgage payment.

There’s no question about it. When it comes to teachers, we are underfunded.

I have to admit, I feel a little guilty about this. Whenever we talk about education on Dave & Dujanovic, I’ve been saying the same thing over and over again: that there’s got to be a better way to deal with this situation than just throwing money at it.

I’m going to admit it: I was wrong. If our teachers are making $13,000 less than the national average, we’re going to need to throw a little bit of money at this problem.

But here’s where I’m going to make everybody mad: I don’t think we should raise teacher pay across the board.

There’s a better way to do this.

Not all teachers are created equal

Lone Peak Elementary

Chinese teacher Tu Pei Tan encourages a student at Lone Peak Elementary. (Photo: Ravell Call / Deseret News)

The problem with our system is that it doesn’t differentiate the great teachers from the bad teachers.

If we deal with our teacher pay problem by just saying: “Everyone gets a $10,000 raise,” I’m not sure it’s really going to make a big difference. I don’t see thousands of great teachers rushing into the Utah public school system for the opportunity to get an average salary.

But if we used the money it would take to get our teachers’ salaries up to normal to reward the truly great teachers, it could really make an impact.

This is the problem we have with teachers: we pay all of our teachers the same, whether they’re good teachers or bad teachers. And I can tell you, because I have four kids in the public education sector, and I’m living it right now: there is such a thing as good and bad teachers.

Students learning

Students at Lone Park Elementary follow along during a Chinese Immersion class. (Photo: Ravell Call / Deseret News)

I’ve had teachers that are marvelous, that inspire kids, and that find unbelievable ways to teach concepts.

Those great teachers absolutely deserve more money. If you have teachers who can teach my kid to love chemistry or math, absolutely pay them like rock stars.

But I’ve also had to deal with teachers who can make my kids hate subjects they used to love.

My kids love art. At least, at home, they do. Every one of them loves to get creative and draw the things they love, but I’ve had an art teacher that did nothing but make them draw colors and shapes, without any kind of passion or creativity.

It killed their joy in art. When my kids were in her class and I asked them about art, they’d tell me: “I hate it. We’re doing cones and colors and shapes and stuff.”

But that teacher who killed their love of art makes the exact same amount as the rock star teachers that got them excited about a subject like chemistry or math that, in the past, could have bored them to tears.

The best teachers should be a model to the rest

Students and technology

A student at Midvale Elementary studies on his computer. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred / Deseret News)

This is the real problem with how we pay our teachers. We aren’t giving them the incentive to be great.

Instead of paying every teacher an extra $10,000, let’s pay the great teachers an extra $30,000. Let’s reward those superhero teachers who can get a class of kids excited about math by paying them way more than the national average. Find the teachers that excel and hold them up as a beacon and a goal.

They won’t be hard to find. I can guarantee that the principals of our schools know exactly who their superstar teachers are. I know that they do because I know who the superstar teachers are in every one of my kids’ schools. And if I know, I’m positive that they know.

And if we start paying a superstar teacher $80,000 to $95,000 a year, then the other teachers that are looking up to that teacher have a goal. They can say: “What are you doing? How are you teaching? How are you communicating with the children? Because I want to be you. You are my life goal, and when I achieve this life goal, I know that I’m going to get paid like you.”

Corine Barney

Teacher Corine Barney, at David High School, handing out papers on Sept. 26, 2013. (Photo: Ravell Call / Deseret News)

Raising salaries across the board isn’t going to do that. If we put our salaries up to average, I doubt it’s going to make that much of a difference.

But if we start offering $80,000 for a great teacher, we’re going to draw in nothing but the absolute best. We’re going to get unbelievable teachers who know they’re good enough to earn those salaries coming to Utah from all over the country.

That’s how we fix our teacher pay problem. Not by throwing money at everybody, but by giving money to the people who deserve it.

More to the story

When I talked about this on the show, a lot of our listeners called in and share some great insights into their experiences that really helped flesh out how I think about teaching as a profession. A lot of them didn’t agree with what I have to say about this, and I think it’s worth listening to their point-of-views, too.

You can hear the other side of this one on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast:

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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