Show Me the Benefits!
Don’t let your eyes glaze over—health insurance and retirement plans can make or break a job offer
Helping children learn and making a difference in a young person’s life are two of the greatest benefits of teaching. But educators deserve more in the way of compensation than just the warm and fuzzy feeling they get standing at the front of the classroom.
It’s a tough, all-consuming job, after all, and you still have to pay your bills, manage your health, and plan for your retirement.
Like other professionals, educators generally receive health insurance and retirement benefits as part of their compensation packages. But the offerings vary widely by school district and state.
“In a lot of people’s minds the whole health benefits package is as important, if not more important, than salary,” says Carol Malone, senior health care specialist at NEA. “It’s difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to go out and navigate the insurance market. So it’s always best to have coverage through an employer plan.”
While a smaller school district may offer only one health plan, larger ones sometimes offer a choice of plans with different premiums, deductibles, and levels of coverage.
“If you have a vast selection, think long and hard before selecting the cheapest plan. It probably means you’re not going to get the best coverage,” says Malone.
While a cheaper plan may have a lower premium, which means less money out of your paycheck up front, it may require higher co-payments for doctors’ visits and prescriptions—and that can add up quickly. Also, watch out for plans with high deductibles, the amount of money you must pay before the insurance company covers your health expenses.
With high-deductible plans, participants can end up paying anywhere from $1,100 to as much as $11,000 out of pocket before the plan provides any benefits, Malone says. Limited-benefit health plans can be equally problematic, she adds, since they cap the amount of money available to participants each year.
In addition to providing health coverage, school districts also offer retirement plans that supply money to employees after they stop working. Most school districts still offer defined-benefit plans, also known as pension plans.
These plans provide a guaranteed monthly benefit at a predictable amount for the rest of the retiree’s life, explains Nancy McKenzie, NEA’s senior pension specialist. The benefit amount depends on an employee’s final salary and years of service.
Although teachers usually contribute a portion of their salaries to defined-benefit plans, the school district, or in some cases the state, manages and invests the funds, contributing additional money as necessary to cover the amount needed to pay all retirement benefits, she says.
Other districts meanwhile offer defined-contribution plans, either as alternate choices for employees or as supplements to their pension plans. A defined-contribution plan, like a 401k, is an individual tax-
deferred investment account funded primarily by an employee. While an employer may contribute funds to the account, the employee manages the money and decides how to invest it. The benefit available from the plan depends on how much money the account accumulates by the time the individual retires.
“Some people will do very well managing their savings, but most working people have busy lives and family obligations and don’t have time to do it,” says McKenzie. “The traditional defined-benefit pension plan is managed by professionals who monitor it constantly and make adjustments to make sure the funds are diversified and, on average, they outperform defined-contribution plans.”
Alaska currently is the only state that offers only a defined-contribution plan to new teachers. Every other state manages a defined-benefit plan for both new and veteran educators.
“The most important thing is just to be aware that some day everyone will retire and you want to be sure that when you no longer work you can have a decent, secure quality of life,” says McKenzie. “It’s never too early to think about the end of your career.”
Your Place in Cyberspace
Stop and think—what’s on your Facebook or MySpace page right now? If you are student teaching or about to graduate, you might want to take a closer look at your postings. The content on your page could cost you a job.
“If you are posting material on Facebook you have to be aware there is a possibility an employer will see it and that it will affect the hiring decision,” says Bruce Meredith, director of the office of general counsel for the Wisconsin Education Association Council. “What you might think is an innocuous picture at one point in your life or conduct you think is perfectly acceptable as a student, may not be as acceptable once you are a teacher.”
New teachers have limited job protections because they are considered “at-will employees,” explains Mike Simpson of NEA’s Office of General Counsel. “So districts can use pretty much any reason not to hire them.” While a tenured teacher can argue whether a district has just cause to take disciplinary action for something he or she posts on a personal Web site, probationary teachers essentially “can be fired for no reason at all,” Simpson explains.
Prospective teachers should understand that communities often hold teachers to a higher moral standard simply because they are public employees, says Lisa Buettner, Student organizer for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
In fact, in Pennsylvania prospective teachers often must have someone attest to their moral character when applying for a job or for a permanent teaching certificate, she adds. Buettner also has encountered cases where a university refused to grant a teaching certificate to a student because of something posted on the student’s Web site.
“Our message is to just think about the content on a page and think about how it would be viewed by others,” says Buettner.
In other words, if you wouldn’t want your boss, your students, or your parents to see something, don’t put it on your Web site.