Mary Sheehy Moe: ‘Montana rule’ crushes teachers’ spirits

Mary Sheehy Moe

In 1990, I left Columbia Falls and got a teaching job at Helena’s vo-tech. The vo-techs had just been adopted by the university system, but they still compensated teachers the way their “birth parents” (local school districts) did: They only “recognized” five of my 18 years of teaching experience.  My annual salary plummeted from $40,000 to $24,000.

Back then, you entered the teaching profession at a wage you could have made without going to college, and there were only two ways you could increase it: acquiring a master’s degree and logging time. Every year of experience inched you up the salary schedule. Every 15 credits toward a master’s had the same effect. But once you’d earned your master’s degree and taught 15 to 18 years, other than the occasional cost-of-living increase, your salary plateaued.

In other professions, you might take the expertise you’d accrued to another workplace, which might make your current employer consider competing to keep you. But in teaching, changing districts was governed by what teachers called  “the Montana rule.” Districts statewide recognized only five years of teaching experience when determining an incoming teacher’s salary. Teachers knew that once you accrued a certain level of experience – something over 12 years – you couldn’t afford to seek greener pastures. Monetarily, those pastures were distinctly browner. So you stayed.

Brace yourself: While Montana scrambles to recruit teachers to combat an ever-intensifying national teacher shortage, “the Montana rule” still applies. Many districts recognize more than 5 years of teaching experience – often 10 – but it’s the rare district that recognizes all of it. So a talented journalism teacher who has been reassigned because of budget cuts to teach history is stuck. An independent teacher who cannot abide a new lock-step approach? Stuck. A creative teacher who loves the innovation in another district, a teacher suffering from personal or professional trauma, a jaded teacher who just needs a challenge … stuck, stuck, stuck.

I’ve been on both sides of the negotiating table, so I know why teachers unions and school boards still cling to the Montana rule. (Another column, another day.) But with an entire profession in extremis, it’s time for healthier paradigms. Just listen to the hollow voices of “stuck” teachers:

“I yearn to teach in a community that really supports education, but I can’t afford to leave.”

All the great programs we’ve lost have affected my passion for teaching. I’m now one of those compliant, but disengaged employees. I’d never be able to make the same paycheck if I moved, so I’m tethered here.”

“My school district is totally focused on recruiting new teachers. But if you’ve been here 15 years, what do they do to keep you? Nothing. They know they don’t have to.”

“I love what they’re doing with technology [elsewhere]. But do I love it enough to lose $75,000 over the next six years?  I have my own kids to think of.”

I long to scold that last teacher, “Do you want your kids to watch the best part of you die long before you do? No? Then go. Yes, you’ll lose money for a while. But you’ll be challenged, alive, happy. You’ll grow in ways you never will if you stay stuck.”

But I don’t. Things worked out OK for me, but it took a lot of time, an amazingly supportive husband, and more than a little luck. Fair compensation shouldn’t boil down to such things. The Montana rule deploys a compensation model that is simply indentured servitude inside-out: The longer you stay, the more you lose by leaving. It’s death to the morale of a teacher whose gifts lie in areas her administration or her community no longer supports. And that death casts a pall on the lives of her students and her colleagues for the rest of her career as a compliant, disengaged automaton.

A stuck teacher told me long ago when I was coaxing him to collaborate on a time-intensive, uncompensated project, “It all pays the same. I don’t work for free any more. Someday you’ll see.”

Decades later, I see this. Good teachers all share one attribute: They go the extra mile. It’s in that extra mile that their students reap lifelong rewards. Conversely, what does a district gain by retaining teachers who are simply – and only – doing what’s required? There’s no extra mile, no extra inch in stuck teachers. They’re uninspired and uninspiring. 

Good teaching is rewarding in many ways, but money is seldom one of them. That old colleague of mine was only half-right. Whether you march dully in place or joyously run the extra mile, it all pays the same. Unless you transfer. Then it pays even less.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com. 

Mary Sheehy Moe: Here’s why teachers deserve 12 months’ salary