President's perspective

Teacher exodus must be stopped

mulgrew.jpgMichael Mulgrew, UFT President

As we negotiate a new contract with the Department of Education, the question is not whether the city can afford to give raises, but whether it can afford not to. And the answer is simple — it can’t.

If New York is serious about rebuilding a first-class school system, then the DOE must sign a fair contract that takes into consideration the years during which we worked without an agreement, that will allow us to recruit and retain the talented educators that our students need, and that recognizes and respects the hard work we do.

We give it our all every day in our classrooms and schools to see that our students succeed.

A math teacher works through lunch to help a student struggling to grasp a new concept. A social studies teacher stays late to grade student papers and prepare the next day’s lessons. An elementary school teacher pays out of pocket for additional basic supplies such as crayons and folders and extras like certificates and bookmarks. Others buy food, winter jackets and prom dresses for the students in their care.

These are common occurrences in every school in our city every day.

It’s not easy to do all that we do, but we do it because of our commitment to fostering a brighter future for our children — which is what drove us to enter this profession in the first place. As educators, we are not just teachers or guidance counselors or paraprofessionals — we are frontline caregivers for the children of New York City, with a responsibility to protect and nurture as well as educate them.

For the last 12 years, we have done this work without receiving the support we need.

Now, by negotiating a fair contract with us, the de Blasio administration has the chance to provide that support for us and our schools so that we can make New York’s school system the best it can be. An investment in educators — to recruit and retain the brightest minds in our field ­— is also an investment in our students and schools. And it is a sign from the administration that it respects and values the work we do every day across this city.

The Bloomberg years were tough. We were demeaned and disrespected and made to feel that the contributions we make to our city — and the sacrifices we have made — are not appreciated. That mistreatment has taken a toll.

As one teacher asked recently, “How long can this system survive when every highly respected, successful teacher is at the burn-out level?”

The answer is that it can’t.

Our teaching force is in crisis. Never mind recruiting new teachers; fully one-quarter of those already teaching in New York City public schools are contemplating leaving within the next three years, according to our recent survey. More than 32,000 teachers have left our school system over the last 11 years, with more than one in eight leaving for jobs in nearby suburban school systems.

The breakdown of who quits is also troubling. We have particular trouble retaining new teachers. In recent years, more than 25 percent of new teachers have quit within their first three years on the job and almost 40 percent have quit by year five. That’s a terrible loss to our school system. But we’re also losing more-experienced teachers. Resignations among teachers with between six and 15 years of experience nearly doubled between 2008 and 2013.

That’s not surprising when you consider that New York City has the neediest children, the largest class sizes and the lowest teacher salaries in the region. A mid-career teacher in the city earns $10,000 less than a mid-career teacher in New Rochelle and more than $20,000 less than a mid-career teacher in Hempstead. The top teacher salary in New York City is $100,049; in East Ramapo, Great Neck and Half Hollow Hills, it is more than $125,000.

Our students, schools and communities depend on a strong teaching force. We need to be able to recruit — and, more importantly, keep — the best educators we can. But how can we do this when city teachers are the lowest-paid teachers — and have the hardest job — in the area?

Our critics want to divert attention away from the hard work we do every day in our classrooms and from the need to recruit and retain the very best educators for our students. They insist that the question before us is whether the city can afford to settle a fair contract.

But, as I’ve already said, the question is whether it can afford not to. We must all speak in unison when we answer that question — and the answer is no.

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