Community of Support

I went to a benefit last night. One of my former students has a 2-year-old with a rare form of cancer. We were all there to support the family and raise money to help them with their various expenses. I’m not sure how many people were there. It was packed. Throughout the night I would venture to guess at least 400. Probably more. But I’m not the best at guessing those things…

As a teacher, I was in this weird position of recognizing so many faces, but trying to put a name to all of them is just too difficult. These two families are solid pillars of the community. There is this network of families that all know each other through their kids’ sports teams and being in school together. Even after high school, these kids are all still very tight. They’re in each others weddings, they went to college together, they stay in touch. I can’t say the same for my high school experience. I only keep up with a few of my classmates.

Most of the former students that I saw last night graduated at least 10 years ago. Many of them are entering their 30s or are already there. A few of them are now teachers. At least one is now a colleague. Another couple of them are coaching my current students in various sports. One of the grandmothers of the 2-year-old was my assistant principal for several years. So to say the least, I had lots of connections to many people there last night. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be a familiar face.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a social event with former students or their parents. It was so nice to see them! It was really cool to be able to talk with them as adults. Some of them I remembered their names instantly. Several I remembered once I got home! Every once in a while a parent would catch my eye and smile like they knew me. A few parents I can remember well and several have such a strong resemblance to their children that I can figure it out. I truly enjoyed talking with all of them and I wish I would have remembered more names. It was wonderful to see the community support for these families and I’m glad that I could be a part of it.

Pension Envy

I am a public employee. I have a defined benefit pension plan. I deserve it.

I have been teaching for almost 18 years. It has taken that long to get to a salary that reflects how hard a work and what I deserve. Fresh college graduates in finance and various other fields are starting out pretty close to what has taken me 18 years to work up to. I work hard. I am vilified by the public. Yet, they think that I don’t deserve my pension. And because they are taxpayers, they think that they have a right to this opinion.

As a public employee, I have taken a lower salary with the promise that when I retire, I will be able to live at a hopefully comfortable level until I die. This level would be approximately 72% of my average high-five salary years. Provided that I work 38 years in my current job. I do not get the benefit of EVER getting a bonus. I know of people whose bonus is more than my yearly salary. Is it fair? Who knows? But I’m not saying that they’re not going to get it. I chose this profession because I like kids. I find it stimulating. I am challenged. I am super frustrated at times. But that just makes me more determined to figure out a way to reach that kid.

There are thousands of teachers out there who are doing the same thing as me. On our nights and weekends we grade papers and plan lessons. We think about the kid who is struggling and how we can help them. In my vast years of experience, what has worked in the past? Is there something new I should try? What about that student who is living on her own? She has no parental support. Here I am trying to figure out how I can arrange for her to get bus tokens to get her to school and calling my mechanics to see if they do any pro-bono work on cars. What about the girl who has figured out that her mom has no business having kids with guy after guy when she’s not a good parent? How can I help her? How many of my kids don’t feel safe in their own homes? How many of my kids only get their food when they are at school? How many of my kids are in the position where I am the only adult that is checking on them and forging a relationship with them?

I am the person that makes a difference in the lives of kids. I’m at about 3000 and counting. Can you say that? We teach because we want to make a difference. It’s what drives us. It’s what makes this whole circus worthwhile. Do we do it for the money? Heck no! I’d bet that if you asked a teacher how much money she or he made, they wouldn’t be able to tell you! They’re so busy worrying about other, more important things, their students, that they don’t pay attention to that. And as a group, we are an easy target. We don’t pay attention to the bullies and don’t often fight back. We’re too busy worrying about your kids to worry about ourselves. So when the public vultures come to take away our pensions, we’re totally caught on our heels.

The fact of the matter is that we are lucky that someone put in place an automatic savings for us from the moment we were hired. We didn’t have to make any financial decision about which investment would be best or how much we could afford to set aside each paycheck. That was done for us. Speaking from my own situation, I put aside 6% of my income (and it will be moving to 7% in the next 2 years) for my pension benefit. The amount of money that I will be paying will pay for my benefit. The actuarial assumptions, based on life expectancy, expected rate of return, etc. all calculate to a solid plan. Because we are a defined benefit (DB) plan, the fees on the money management are much less than a typical 401(k) or 403(b) plan. I do have an additional 403(b) plan through my district to compensate for health benefits until I reach medicare age. Each quarter there is roughly $10 deducted in fees. I can easily assure you that the costs of my DB plan are way less than the fees for my defined contribution (DC) 403(b) plan.

What if we were given control to manage our own retirement accounts? What average person has the investment expertise to do that? What average person has the mathematical ability to understand all of it? As someone who teaches math, I’m afraid to say that not many people do. As someone on a retirement board that manages the assets of a pension fund, I’m even more convinced that the average person is ill-equipped to handle it. If there is a push to change DB plans to DC plans, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The middle class will disappear. The public employees that have given their lives in service to their community will be cheated out of a retirement that they so well deserve.

A solid pension is a promise to public employees that their service to their community is valued. There must be a way to make it work and state governments need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for what they have promised. All public employees deserve a solid pension plan. Those who work in the private sector, you have been able to get bonuses and higher incomes for your lifetime. That is the trade-off. It is up to you to make your own savings plan. Do not penalize those of us who have dedicated our lives in service to our community. Do not act like I do not contribute and the pension is fully funded by taxpayers. It is not. I put away a portion of my income, it just so happens to be managed by a larger entity that can pay lesser fees than an individual investor and I don’t have to be a financial expert. Thank God for that!

If you’re jealous of my defined benefit plan, please, feel free to become a public employee. Take a lesser salary. Forego your bonus. Enjoy the feeling of making a difference in the lives of so many. Because you do. You do make a difference. Every day. And that? Priceless.