All I Want is a Comma for Christmas

Mike Vargas Uncategorized

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This past week I went to lunch with a large group of teachers on my staff. We spent the usual time discussing our common students: the good, the bad, the ugly, and all the issues we were each dealing with in the classroom. We talked about family, kids, work, the usual. It was a good lunch. Then one of my colleagues brought up what he wished to get for Christmas. Of course, there were the usual answers, then the newest member of our tribe stated, that all he wanted was a “comma “for Christmas. It took a second, but we all knew exactly what he was talking about. That magic mark that denotes another level in the respect category. That beautiful mark that more times than not is absent from the paychecks of our newest members of the profession. We all knew what he meant.

My colleague conveyed to us the disparity of his situation. Like many of our valley teachers, he came here from out of state. Crippled by school loans, he works three jobs to make ends meet, and then he coaches a school sports team. I know many of us have been there. However, what is different today unlike my generation, my friend very likely will never see the comma in his paycheck if he stays.

So, I understand we have to pay our dues, and in most professions, you expect that it will take time to build up salary and make your way up the ladder. However alas we are teachers in Arizona. If you are like me, there is no pay raise. In many cases I have friends who are losing money annually due to insurance rate hikes and budget cuts.
So let’s break down some numbers. If your take home is $900 every two weeks, divide that by 80 hours, you get $11.25 an hour. With prop 206 the new Arizona law we are not even making minimum wage, and this is for folks who have college degrees.

So how do you maintain the quality of your workforce, a population that is responsible for the well -being of the incoming generation of youth. The guardians of civilization itself? The only answer: create incentives. If we are going to survive, the powers that be must get creative in order to attract and retain quality educators. Sure, we know they can’t pay us more. Arizonans will never raise taxes, its bad for business, its unnecessary, those people already get 2 months off a year, etc etc.. We have heard it all before.
Yet, wouldn’t it be nice to have kids that can read and write in our state? Maybe some kids that value the country and community they live in? Maybe, just maybe, an educated population that is willing to solve our planets problems? Well it’s not going to happen on minimum wage.

But what about some perks? Say for instance loan forgiveness from a state school? A waiver on vehicle registration? Or even some state income deductions? A meaningful family health care package perhaps? How about a teacher incentive program of any kind? In other countries, a teacher sticker in the windshield gives you free parking in metropolitan cities. It doesn’t have to be drastic. What it needs to do is raise awareness of the importance of teachers, and hence the awareness of the importance of the profession itself. A comma would solve a lot of problems, but at this point anything that moves the gas gage back to full, even a tick mark, is going to improve the status quo.


My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Comments 15

  1. Melissa Girmscheid

    Well said, Mike! With the rising cost of an undergraduate degree, students are discouragewd from pursuing teaching because the prospect of paying back those student loans seems near to impossible. Add to that the cost of pursing additional education to remain current in the profession and you find teachers leaving the profession rather than incur additional debt. Anything that shows teachers they are valued would be a start.

  2. Jen Robinson

    Hi Mike-
    Thanks for sharing this piece. As we begin to look ahead to next year and the vacancies we have to fill we do need to be mindful of the realities of teaching. If as a state we are not addressing it, we within our districts need to address it. But the simple question lies in how do we do that and can all districts afford to answer this question?

    1. Danielle Brown

      Jen you bring up a great point, if the state isn’t addressing the realities of teaching how are our districts addressing it and what support do the districts need in order to address the realities. I also appreciate how you strive for equity across districts. How can we ensure that ALL districts to can address these realities, in a way that is meaningful and encourages educators to stay.

  3. Donnie Lee

    I would love that comma! In my check, or in my checking/savings account! Unfortunately, our meager paychecks make it very hard to get that comma in our bank accounts. And that loss of financial security causes many educators a high level of anxiety which impacts their career. When I first started teaching 14 years ago, my take home pay was $975. Today, I take home $1,250 every two weeks. One idea I had is for teachers to be exempt from state income tax.

  4. Danielle Brown

    Mike! First off I love the title of this piece! The title made me think that this piece would go in the direction of grammar, but was I mistaken! The idea of a comma for Christmas is one that I am sure many educators can relate to. I appreciate that pose solutions that could take effect more immediately than a comma. Many educators are educators because it’s a calling, a passion & an incentive that doesn’t hurt that. I am sure it would do wonders for retention and possibly recruitment.

  5. Angela Buzan

    This is an awesome post– I just read this and it looks like we tackled the same problem in our blogs!

    I really appreciate the non-monetary incentives you mention. When 50% of a state budget is devoted to education, it’s important to realize money isn’t always an option. So if we can’t see it in our salaries, it would be nice to see it some where else. I think about colleagues who spend $500 to $800 a month to send a single child to day care. The irony of that math is insane.

  6. Beth Maloney

    Mike, great post! I wonder what other incentives we could look at since we know that our state is not likely to give us a comma anytime soon. I like Donnie’s idea of state tax exemption and I love the idea of loan forgiveness for BA and MA degrees, continuing professional development and higher certification, like National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This is a conversation we need to have with the Governor and Legislature.

  7. Sandy Merz

    I like the idea of banks and credit unions getting competitive with each other and offering low interest home loans or refinancing.

  8. Christine Porter Marsh

    Thank you for pointing out that there is no pay raise for so many of us (teachers). We used to be able to look at the pay schedule and see what we’d be making in 10 or 15 years; however, the pay scale is worthless now because so many teachers’ pay has been frozen.

    I hate the cold, and now I especially hate the word “frozen,” which has taken on different connotations than the dictionary might indicate.

  9. Angelia

    Thank you for providing a paragraph of potential solutions Mike! I appreciate the breakdown of what educators are making hourly and what a difference a comma would make.

  10. Mike Lee

    Mike, identifying that paying your dues in a profession is quite accurate, however, you then highlight the more challenging point: The financial payoff never comes, and this seems to be a point we cannot get through with policy-makers! It often leaves me wondering what else we can do. One area where we could strengthen our cause would be to do a better job within the profession of identifying those who have paid their dues; as we all know, paying those dues is partially through time, but more importantly, through performance. However, if we continually insist on only using time as the only measure, traction will continue to be difficult. And, I don’t mean simply using test scores; we all know how flawed that model is. People like you, however, are role-modeling a way to do that, with your obvious leadership and refusal to just “sit tight.” Now, if we could just institutionalize a way to recognition and reward that leadership (aside from just giving you more free work….)

    1. Alaina Adams

      “The payoff never comes” – so true! I feel like such a failure each time I have to beg for student loan deferment… I keep hoping that just a little more time will help me reach that level where I can afford a $400+ monthly student loan payment… and the day just never comes. It’s crippling and humiliating. Thank you for typing out loud the fact that the payoff just never comes. I feel a little less crazy today. ;)

  11. Jane C Jackson

    Cultivate the Arizona business community as your allies. Here is evidence: A survey of 400 Arizona business executives was conducted in November 2015, on behalf of the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and Alliance Bank of Arizona (initiated by Jim Lundy, the founding CEO).
    Nearly three-quarters of the survey’s respondents saw improving K-12 as the most important task for local governments, and 56 percent saw boosting K-12 funding as the state’s biggest job.
    These findings are from a powerful political constituency. Cultivate them as allies. How? Calls, e-mails; volunteer to give talks at their meetings. Tell your stories, and give them ideas.

  12. Jane C Jackson

    For effective actions, I recommend that you download the INDIVISIBLE GUIDE. The authors are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party, whose ideas were cruel and tinged with racism — and yet they won. “We believe that protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda — but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness. Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate.” Download the INDIVISIBLE GUIDE in pdf, at https://www.indivisibleguide.com/

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