Spencer Campbell spends much of his days walking the halls of Elk Ridge Middle School, checking breezeways for kids playing hooky, redirecting foot traffic between classes and checking on substitute teachers.
Campbell is one of two assistant principals at Elk Ridge, a school just south of Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s his first year in the role and he looks the part. He’s in his late 30s, sharply dressed, walks briskly and carries a walkie-talkie on his belt.
Before coming to education, Campbell owned a small business. He says he felt drawn to schools, though, so he got a master’s degree and spent five years in the classroom as a teacher.
Where, after all that, he says he just couldn’t make ends meet. “As a teacher I was making $43,000 a year and I had a part-time job where I would work another 20,” he says. “That wasn’t for the extras. That was just for the basics.” Extras like braces for his kids, piano lessons and the occasional vacation.
So, he looked ahead to the next step: administration.
“There’s not a step in the ladder between teacher and administrator,” Campbell says. “It’s just teacher. And administrator.”
That’s not saying Campbell is upset about his job, he says he likes it and now he makes nearly double what he made in the classroom. Though, the change is bittersweet.
“The effect that a classroom teacher has on a student is second only to a parent,” Campbell says. “And as an administrator, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to have that same effect and that’s kind of heartbreaking.”
“The problem is that there is a big disparity between what teachers make and a living wage in lots of places,” says Janice Voorhies, the president of the Jordan District school board where Campbell works.
The board recently approved a salary increase, including an additional $7,000 for beginning teachers. They’re also working on a plan to create a better “classroom-friendly” career ladder which will mix teaching, mentoring and administrative responsibilities. Voorhies calls it, “another avenue to earn additional money so you can stay in the classroom, be a deep, profound, influence on student learning and still feed your family.”
But Voorhies admits she isn’t sure how long that will take, or if it will even happen. And in the meantime, classrooms will continue to lose teachers like Spencer Campbell.
“He was a phenomenal teacher. Phenomenal,” says AJ Steele, a ninth-grade geography teacher from Campbell’s previous school. “Anytime someone like that leaves the classroom, I think it’s a huge blow,” says Steele. “That’s one less amazing teacher a kid has.”
Steele refers to this phenomenon, leaving the classroom you love to be an administrator, as the greatest mystery in education: “Why is it that the further away you get from kids, the more money you make?”
Until that’s figured out, some of the most dynamic educators, like Spencer Campbell, will continue to spend their days patrolling hallways.