A better side hustle for teachers

Moonlighting at an assembly line might help teachers pay the bills, but it won’t help their students learn more. There is a better way
By: | Issue: February, 2020
January 15, 2019

Former teacher Michael Driskill is the chief operating officer at Math for America.

Side hustles for teachers are common in many states, as recent reports have shown. In South Carolina, for instance, some 600 educators—including an award-winning teacher of the year—have worked nights on an assembly line to make ends meet.

Low pay isn’t the only reason teachers are picking up extra jobs: 96% use personal funds to pay for their supplies, according to a survey by Fishbowl, an app that teachers commonly use to discuss workplace issues. The combination of low wages and a lack of professional respect is seen as a driving force behind America’s teacher shortage, which is at crisis levels.

There is a silver lining. Educators are so committed to their profession that they are willing to do additional work outside their normal business hours to stay in their chosen field. This is good news because additional work for teachers is one of the main ways we can improve education in the U.S. But that extra work should boost student achievement instead of Uber’s bottom line.

Taking time for analysis

Countries with high-performing education systems know that work beyond the classroom is important for student success. In Japan, for example, teachers spend many hours together engaged in a collaborative process called “lesson study.” Similar to surgeons debriefing one another on complex procedures, Japanese teachers watch their peers teach and then they analyze what works and what doesn’t to improve their lessons. The extra work pays off. Japan is a regular high performer on comparative international tests.

A commitment to professionalizing teaching is a key to success in many high-performing nations.

In the early 2000s, I visited Japan as a guest of the Japanese government for a program designed to improve relations and the understanding of our different education systems. At the time, I was teaching math at a large urban high school in New York City. I was surprised not only by how much time teachers spent together after instruction, but also by how the profession was viewed in Japan. It is widely considered rigorous and prestigious. Teachers don’t “practice” for a couple of years before moving on to bigger and better things. Japanese educators were equally surprised to learn that in America, I was regularly asked what I planned to do next.

International studies by leading researchers—such as Linda Darling-Hammond, now president of the California State Board of Education—have shown that a commitment to professionalizing teaching is a key to success in many high-performing nations. These countries recognize that teaching is complex and teachers spend considerable time working together outside the classroom.

Creating new opportunities

How do we take the U.S. from a country where teachers can’t pay the bills, and turn it into a global leader in education? We can start by creating additional paid opportunities—through stipends and other means—that allow teachers to work extra hours and tackle the intellectually demanding, reflective and collaborative work necessary to move the profession forward.


Read: Why American education pales—and fails—on the global stage


These opportunities should bring together teachers who work at the same school, and connect outstanding teachers from many different schools, as we do in the fellowship program that I lead in New York.

Finding the money for these new opportunities will be a challenge, of course, but it can be done. Policymakers can create programs and fund them using public or private sources. Either way, these efforts demand the political will to ignore quick fixes and fads in favor of slow but steady progress toward education excellence.

In the 1970s, Finland’s education system was in trouble. A solution was proposed that was viewed as radical at the time: Transform teaching into a profession with prestige, similar to medicine and law. Many believed that teachers weren’t up to the task.

Today in Finland, it is easier to become a doctor than a teacher, and the Finish education system is one of the world’s best. We can transform education in the U.S. To get there, we need to show teachers the money and the professional respect they deserve.


Former teacher Michael Driskill is the chief operating officer at Math for America.