More strikes ahead? Teachers say they love their jobs but can't pay their bills, poll shows

Susan Page and Marina Pitofsky

Teachers love their jobs, but they also say that they have the right, and the reasons, to walk out on them.

An exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll of teachers finds an extraordinary level of job satisfaction — if they could pick a career all over again, three of four would still choose teaching — but one that is being battered by broad complaints about the salaries and support they receive. By an overwhelming margin, they agree that public-school teachers have the right to strike. 

Those attitudes nationwide could set the stage for more walk-outs like the one now underway in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district. On Saturday in Denver, public-school teachers began voting on whether to strike for the first time in a quarter-century. The teachers' union and the district have been unable to reach an agreement on teacher pay. Oakland teachers plan to vote on whether to strike this weekend.

"One year, I counted up all the hours I spent working," said Kevin Rooker, 60, a history teacher in Saginaw, Mich., including time spent teaching classes, grading papers and meeting after-hours as part of Carrollton High School's technology committee. "If you total up all those hours, guess what I made? $2.68 an hour."

That said, after 20 years on the job, Rooker, who was among those surveyed, said in a follow-up phone interview that he wouldn't want to be anywhere else than with his students. "It's fun to watch them struggle, and then that light bulb goes off in their eyes, like, 'Oh my gosh, I've got it!'"

The findings spotlight this disconnect: 92 percent of teachers say they love their job, surely a remarkable consensus for any field of endeavor, but a majority of them, 54 percent, also say they have thought about quitting.

In a word cloud that reflected the responses to an open-ended question about why they had thought about leaving the job, by far the biggest words were "low pay" and "lack support," surrounded by comments about paperwork, stress, difficult students and hovering parents.

The poll is part of a USA TODAY project through the 2018-19 school year that is exploring the profession of teaching in an era of evolving challenges, from the demands of standardized testing to the reality of mass shootings. The online survey of 504 adults who teach kindergarten through 12th grade in public, private and charter schools, conducted Jan. 11-17, has a credibility interval of plus or minus five percentage points.

"Our latest USA Today/Ipsos Poll makes clear that what sustains teachers is love for the job, not money,” said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos. “But love alone does not pay the bills. Indeed three-fourths of teachers believe in the right to go on strike."

In Los Angeles, negotiations continued over the weekend between striking teachers and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Disputes over pay, class size and classroom support sparked the first strike in 30 years in the school system, which now enrolls 640,000 students. 

More: Even when teachers strike, Americans give them high grades, poll shows. Unions fare worse.

Show me the money

By more than 2-1, 66 percent to 31 percent, teachers say they aren't paid fairly. On that, the public agrees. In a national USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll last September, Americans by a similar 59 percent to 34 percent said teachers weren't paid what they're worth. 

"The rent is one full (two-week) paycheck, so that leaves me another full paycheck to pay the rest of the bills," says Allison Elledge, 46, a history teacher at Flagler Palm Coast High School in Florida and the single mother of three daughters, two of them now grown. She tutors after school to earn extra money. 

In the survey, nearly four in 10 teachers say they had worked a second job over the past year to make ends meet. Almost three in 10 say they ran up debt during that time. Eight in 10 said they had used their own money to buy school supplies.

"I don't know of another profession where the employees bring materials into the workplace, and they pay for it out of their own pocket," Rooker said. "When people look at me and say teachers get paid enough for babysitting, I say, 'When was the last time you had to take a piece of sheet metal into GM?'"

Little surprise, perhaps, that teachers overwhelmingly see public schools as worth the tax money that funds them, 78 percent to 19 percent. On this, the public also generally agreed, by 68 percent to 25 percent in the September survey.

Today's teachers say the public schools are doing a better job of educating students than they did 10 years ago — by 2-1, 62 percent to 30 percent.

But they express mixed views toward charter schools, a movement supported by advocates as a way to give parents a choice and spur innovation in public education. One sticking point in the Los Angeles strike are the union's demand that the district exert more control over charter schools, arguing that they are undermining public schools.

Americans overwhelmingly believed that private and charter schools usually provide better education than public schools, by 60 percent to 27 percent. But teachers split down the middle on that question, 47 percent to 46 percent. By 2-1, 59 percent to 30 percent, they say that charter schools take money and good students away from public schools.  

When it comes to local teachers' unions, sentiments differ significantly depending on whether the teacher belongs to one or not. Eight in 10 unionized teachers approve of their local union, nearly double the 44 percent of non-unionized teachers who do. Unionized teachers by 4-1 say unions improve the quality of education. Non-unionized teachers agree, but by a closer margin, 53 percent to 29 percent.

There was much less difference in views on whether teachers' unions make it harder to fire bad teachers. Non-unionized teachers agree with that statement by 64 percent to 18 percent, unionized teachers by 62 percent to 32 percent. 

Maybe their dog died

Teachers express mixed views about the standardized testing that has become increasingly common in the classroom. 

Anna Turner, 36, who teaches biology at Knoxville Catholic High School in Tennessee, had to administer the tests when she taught in a public school. "It took up extra time for me," she said in a follow-up interview after being polled. "But standardized testing is one of those hurdles you jump over because it makes sure kids are learning the same thing from school system to school system."

Other teachers say the tests put damaging pressure on them and the kids in their classrooms.

"Maybe a student has test anxiety, or their dog died that day, but we still expect a 10-year-old to take a test and perform at their best," says Stacey Shaffer, 45, a fifth-grade English and language-arts teacher at E.J. Moss Intermediate School in the tiny east Texas town of Lindale. "They come up to me in the fifth grade and say they're not good at reading. I'm, like, 'You're 10. you don't know what you're good at.'"

"It's really easy to teach to the test, (but) that doesn't help the kids grow or be part of the community," said Cullen Murphy, 44, who teaches seventh-grade math and science at East Hills Middle School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. In what might seem like an obvious point, just about every teacher surveyed, 94 percent of them, say they became a teacher because they liked teaching. 

Murphy has felt in his own life the difference teachers can make. "I was a foster child growing up, so I actually had teachers take care of me," he says. "I wanted to repay for that."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: More strikes ahead? Teachers say they love their jobs but can't pay their bills, poll shows