The Ultimate Guide to Surviving a Political Conversation at Thanksgiving

Yes, you can bring your family from all political sides together around an issue.

There's no better time to convince your whole family that teacher salaries must go up than at Thanksgiving Dinner. You’ve got a captive audience of loved ones who are too full to move, so ignore the old adage to not discuss politics at the dinner table. Here's how to do it:

Start your Thanksgiving dinner with a toast to teachers.

This Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the teacher you're most thankful for—whether a family member, a teacher of your child's, or a teacher from your childhood. With everyone at the table, plates piled high and glasses full, think of that one teacher and raise a toast to them.

"To the teacher with a graduate-level education who works close to sixty hours a week, earning a salary comparable to that of a toll-taker or bartender, while having to work a second job, and all the while raising a family of their own: A toast and thanks to you for educating and enlightening; for being the wall to lean on; for not leaving the teaching profession for a higher paying job, as many other great teachers have had to do."

Some will already be raising their glasses enthusiastically in support—you'd expect as much. But you're not done yet with the toast.

"May the governors and policy makers in our country prove that a thriving economy and a thriving society grow from excellent teachers, which necessitates giving excellent teachers the compensation they truly deserve. We need to keep great educators like you in the classroom."

Each family has its plate full of political differences. It wouldn't be a family otherwise. Here’s how to address each of them.

For your more conservative family members:

For the most conservative in your clan, fill their plate with the news that two Republican governors have already committed to raising teachers' salaries because they know they need teaching to be attractive in their state. Remind them that investing in our children’s education is actually an investment in our future workforce. Eric Hanushek, an economist from the Hoover Institution, published this study showing that great teachers increase students' future earnings. Emphasize that this kind of economic investment is the best long-term plan for safe and healthy communities. If they need more convincing, let them know that teacher turnover costs the nation $7 billion dollars per year and that we could easily save that money by raising teacher salaries from within existing budgets. Then pass the potatoes, and let them chew on both for a bit as you move on to some of the other guests.

For the moderates:

Some of the moderates of the family will basically agree that teachers should earn more but they'll also say, "Well, sounds good but it probably can't be done." As they enjoy their apple, pumpkin, and pecan, show them that your ideas aren't pie in the sky, but founded on facts.

Mention that for a small state to move salary scales to professional levels, it would cost the same as a single day in Afghanistan. Seconds, anyone? How about the news of places that have raised salaries through slashing administrative costs, early retirement packages, or bonds? Or offer up this tasty tidbit from Public Impact (PDF) that shows states and districts how to raise teacher salaries by 20 to 130 percent with the money they have now.

If there's room for more, say that more models need to be developed and that is exactly why you signed the pledge and called your governor this past week to ask that leader to prioritize this need.

For those liberals:

Your liberal family members may insist that teachers don't care about salaries. They didn’t go into it for the money and can just as well be paid in hugs, pats on the back, and the knowledge that they made a difference. This may be true in many cases, but there are simply not enough folks out there who are both putting students first and able to pay their bills. Wouldn’t we rather know that all our teachers are capable and dedicated and don’t need to be self-sacrificing?

If they need some more convincing, remind them that teachers work an average of ten hours per day (in some cases even more), over 90 percent spend their own money on their students or classrooms, and yet teachers are priced out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas. Isn’t it time teachers were compensated fairly?

Yes, let that after-dinner ennui set in. This is no longer time for hard facts. This course calls for something a little sweeter, a closer of hope and optimism. Just state the obvious: If you want to live in a country where young people achieve their dreams and leave school with dignity and a sense of hope and optimism for a strong and stable future, giving all students access to great, well-supported teachers is the only way. 7,000 students leaving school each year is tragic. How do we slow our drop-out rates and keep our youth engaged in education? Investing in teaching our youth is the right thing to do, and the American thing to do.

For all your family that believe in raising teacher pay:

Be thrilled to share with them that right now, at this very moment, one million teachers are set to retire in the next six years and, at the same time, ever more college students are making their career choices. Bust out a recap of the McKinsey report that shows how important professional salaries are to college students as they select their career choices today. While teacher salaries in the U.S. have stagnated for the past forty years, other nations are seeing tremendous growth in student achievement and teacher recruitment. Is it any coincidence that teachers in these nations receive professional levels of compensation while not having to pay out of pocket for training or supplies? There is no time to waste. Who wants coffee?

You may find that your conservative faction has gained a second wind. Let them know that Condeleezza Rice has been studying and speaking about how our schools' falling achievement rates erodes our national security.

Want to keep the conversation going? Here's a short list of facts that might come in handy:

  • Teachers salaries have steadily declined for the past 40 years, while other professional wages have risen;
  • Had wages risen at the same rate that per-pupil spending has risen over the past four decades, average salaries in our nation would be $120,000;
  • Average teachers’ starting salaries in our nation are $39,000 and ending salaries are $67,000;
  • 14 percent of teachers leave the profession each year (which is the highest for any profession with this level of training);
  • Chronic shortages of teachers in multiple key subjects – math, science, special education, and foreign language – have plagued our schools since the 1950s;
  • In urban districts, the turnover is 20 percent annually with the highest need schools witnessing 50 percent turnover every 2 years;
  • 46 percent of teachers in public schools leave the profession within their first five years;
  • $7 billion is the price each year for high teacher turnover in the United States.

You can also mention that you're hearing a lot about various reform ideas and that there are lots of great ideas to consider and implement. But first, we need to make sure the best college students pick teaching.


Once you finally get everyone to agree, please take a video of your family saying the following pledge. Then, send to us to be featured in an upcoming short film!

THE PLEDGE: "I pledge to support raising teachers' salaries so that excellent teachers will be able to afford to stay in the classroom, and talented graduates will choose to join the most important profession in the world."

Camera shy? You can still support the new film series from The Teacher Salary Project by contributing to our Kickstarter.

And, tell your friends and family they won't get any leftovers until they've taken out their phones and liked The Teacher Salary Project on Facebook!

Happy Thanksgiving to you! And thank you for helping to bring your family from all political sides together around this issue.

Julian Meehan

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