Blood, Sweat, and Chalk 

Nínive Clements Calegari wishes teachers got as much respect as lawyers.

Talk to Nínive Clements Calegari for ten minutes, and you'll hear ten ideas for improving public education. Talk to her for fifty minutes, and you'll hear fifty.

This morning, she's at her desk in the back office of 826 Valencia, the pirate-themed SF Mission District tutoring center founded by author and publisher Dave Eggers. For the past week she's been away visiting New York's 826 chapter and looking into starting one in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- all part of the job for the center's executive director.

At the moment, she's focused on something else: the depressingly low pay of America's teachers. Though the dark rings under her eyes suggest jet lag, the topic gives her juice. In quick bursts, she rattles off studies, initiatives, and statistics, including this key point: According to one study, 46 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years. The solution? Pay them as the skilled professionals they are. That might mean raising base salaries, giving teachers rigorous evaluations -- but constructive ones, she adds carefully -- and hefty bonuses for achievement, or both. But whatever the details, for the love of God, pay them more.

Think about it selfishly, she says: "Do we want the people who are the foundation of our democracy -- if that's what we believe they are -- living paycheck to paycheck? It's just not self-sustainable. It doesn't allow people to have plans, or give things to their kids that they want to give, or pay for college." She adds, "This paycheck to paycheck business is baloney."

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of the ironically titled manifesto Teachers Have It Easy (New Press, $25.95), which Calegari recently co-wrote with Eggers and Daniel Moulthrop, an ex-teacher, recent UC Berkeley journalism-school grad, and current Cleveland public-radio morning-show host. In the revealing and often disturbing early chapters, current and former teachers describe life on the edge of burnout: subsisting on bottom-of-the-barrel wages, living in low-income housing, and working second jobs to make ends meet. One hawks stereos at Circuit City. Another recalls scrubbing toilets at night, thinking, "I went to school for four years and did very well, and I'm doing this."

Calegari admits that she didn't contemplate the paycheck when she went into teaching: "I didn't do the math forward." She was young and optimistic. The path ahead seemed smooth. Her Mexican-American upbringing and Catholic education pointed her toward community service. An idyllic time at Monterey's Santa Catalina School inspired her to teach. A favorite professor at Middlebury College -- where Calegari became friends with Eggers' future wife, the novelist Vendela Vida -- pushed her toward Harvard's education program, which turned out to be "phenomenal." But she noticed the salary pinch while teaching in public schools in Cambridge and Marin. And she felt it clamp down like a vise at San Francisco's Leadership High, a young charter school that was going through severe growing pains. Four years later, only one of her co-workers is still teaching at Leadership. "It's just not sustainable to work that hard and then to feel so incredibly undervalued," Calegari says.

She cites some of the constant small humiliations teachers endure because of low pay: being unable to repair modest fixer-upper homes, live in the cities where they work, or attend friends' weddings in other states. Then there's the strange mix of indifference and condescension they get from their peers: "I had friends who were corporate attorneys, and I would stand there with my dear friend Amy, and somebody would say, 'Oh, you're a teacher, good for you,' and then they'd say, 'Oh, you're an attorney? Oh, which firm?' and there'd be seven follow-up questions. No one at a cocktail party asks a teacher what her project is, what she's working on, what she's getting her kids to do."

Eggers comes into the office, stops to say hello, then goes out to the main room, where Vida is teaching a class on short-story writing. He looks beat.

Calegari says, "I was laughing with Dave because he's running summer camp right now for the 826 kids -- he taught for five hours straight on Monday, and he came on Tuesday and said, 'I did that thing: I went home, and I went to bed at 8:30, and I didn't get up until the morning.'"

Coming to 826 after eight years of public-school teaching was "a no-brainer," she says. "Having been a classroom teacher and now getting to support classroom teachers -- I love that kind of collaboration." But does she miss her old job? "No," she says a little sadly. "It's such hard work. It's so exhausting. And you get so little acknowledgment."


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