If he quits, blame the bucks, not the bureaucracy

Editor's note: We published a journal of Kenneth Dobyns' experiences as a first-year teacher at West Johnston High School near Benson during the 2002-03 academic year. Q wondered then whether the career-switching English teacher would wind up among the 48 percent of Tar Heel teachers who quit within five years. Dobyns is now in his fourth year. Here's how he is doing.

When I began teaching and writing about teaching three years ago, the question being asked was, "Will he make it?" "It" is the magic five-year mark by which half of all North Carolina teachers leave the profession. This past summer I thought I had answered the question.

I had been asked to start and run our new Freshman Academy, an opportunity that would allow me to address many of the problems I had been writing about for three years. I was well-established at my school, had a firm command of the curriculum and had the seniority necessary to all but choose what classes I wanted to teach and when. In short, I had it made, and five years was a done deal. The only question was how far beyond that I would go.

Four months later, the Freshman Academy is a huge success. All the positive outcomes we hoped for are being realized, my principal regularly brags about the program both in school and out, and recently I was asked to speak at an education conference in Savannah to explain precisely what we're doing and why it's going so well. I work closely with a fantastic group of professional educators; I have bright, motivated, engaged students, and I absolutely love going to work.

Oh, and one more thing: I am all but certain that come June I'll leave teaching for good.

I could say that the reason I'm planning to leave education is complicated, but it isn't. I can sum it up in one word: money.

I simply can't live on what I make as a teacher. I can, however, make ends meet by working a second, third and fourth job. In addition to teaching, I work as a research technician in the forest entomology labs at N.C. State, I grade the essay portion of the SAT and I work as a handyman.

Those four jobs keep me working 70 to 80 hours a week during the school year and full-time over the summer, and while the schedule can be a little grueling, I've managed to keep it up for a few years now. But recent, unexpected and very costly car repair and veterinary bills brought into sharp relief the troubling reality of my life: I am one mishap from financial ruin, and that's no way to live.

The issue of teacher pay is not new. Recently, Gov. Mike Easley pledged to bring North Carolina teacher salaries above the national average by 2009. In the wake of that announcement -- and the $750 raise that all teachers got when he made it -- much has been said and written on the issue. Some have even suggested that, with an average annual salary of $45,149 and summers off, North Carolina teachers are, in fact, quite well-paid. While I am reluctant to speak for anyone else, I am happy to tell you that this teacher is by no means well-paid, and I have yet to have a summer off.

For the record, I make $29,605.80 a year as a fourth-year teacher. Using the current salary schedule, I will reach the "average" teacher salary after I have been teaching for 25 years, assuming I live that long. I will be 66 years old.

Many teachers manage to live on what they make only because they're married to someone who makes considerably more than they do. As a single man living alone with house, car, student loan, Visa and all the other bills to pay, I simply can't make it work. Working myself to the point of exhaustion, I manage to keep my head above water, but for how long? And, more to the point, why should I have to? That's a question I can't answer, but if something unfortunate should happen to me, there's one question I can answer: Will he make it?

Not bloody likely.