For Nínive Calegari, founder of The Teachers Salary Project, heroes are the ones who make sacrifices to pass on knowledge to future generations.
“For societies to be safe and thriving, you want young people to feel hope about the future and families and teachers need to build that hope together.” said Calegari, a 44-year-old woman who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and wants to better society through teachers.
She directed a project in 2008 that is still going strong today called The Teachers Salary Project, composed of different mediums: She co-wrote a book called Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers in 2006 and also produced a movie called American Teacher in 2011 to convince a greater audience of the importance of valuing teachers. She is now working on projects to expose the hardship of making a living as a teacher, in particular through TED talks, where she was invited to speak.
She believes that teachers are the key to improving our society, but that this profession is undervalued in our society. “I think we would trust teachers more if the salary were higher, and I think teachers would be bolder with their authority with professional pay,” argues Calegari, and this is the core argument of her fight for the revalorization of teachers in today’s society.
This mistrust in teachers and the lack of comprehension of their importance is reflected in their low salaries compared to most professions, even after years of experience. She explained that most teachers are forced to take on other jobs, such as tutoring jobs, afterschool activities and taxi driving on top of their full time teaching jobs to be able to make a decent living.
“Our democracy relies on people participating and only folks who understand its value will do so. And humanity needs dignity restored and teachers are in the job of restoring dignity where it’s sometimes lost,” she said. These tensions over financial security puts in jeopardy their abilities to teach and takes away the dignity they deserve, she argues.
This theory comes from her own experience as a teacher. She taught in Mexico and the US in public schools for 10 years before co-founding 826 Valencia, a San Francisco based non-profit organization whose goal is to help children unleash their passion for writing and to support teachers all over the nation. She became inspired by her passionate teachers. “I thought (and think) it was the most noble and impactful work I could do,” she said.
At 826 Valencia, she created “a joyful safe haven where learning was fun” to support students and teachers. “We were also able to bring many professional writers and designers to work with kids and teachers, which had a profound impact on the projects and classrooms.” Calegari added. She understands that teachers need extra support sometimes as their jobs are very challenging, not only following the progress of many children at a time, but also being a contributing factor to their socialization, and their integration in society norms and values. She explained that all children she has taugh had one thing in common no matter what country or socio- economic status they had: “They were hilarious and wonderful and responded to a great lesson plan with engagement and enjoyed a less excellent lesson plan less well.”
She has a great admiration for teachers and considers them a pillar of society. Teachers, Calegari believes, sacrifice so much for their students and have a challenging job that is not rewarded enough. “I personally wanted to support teachers and relieve the pressure on them by bringing them resources and teams of eager volunteers,” Calegari said, explaining why she created 826 Valencia. This organization she co-founded with Dave Eggers, a writer, was made to help underprivileged students of San Francisco get equal chances to succeed in school and drawing them to the pleasure of writing. This name comes from its location in San Francisco on Valencia Street. There are now 826 Valencia chapters all over the US helping children.
Calegari studied Education at Harvard University and is convinced that if college students know they could make a good salary by working in education, teaching would be as popular as law or business. Here is a tip from Calegari for present college students who want to teach: “I would certainly find places (and there are some) where the salary and the cost of living are not deeply out of whack, and then teach in one of those places.” She stays optimistic that this career will be more highly estimated in our society.
Calegari has been recognized for her work receiving Edutopia’s 2007 Daring Dozen award. The mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the San Francisco Art Commission. She has also participated in many foundations, always keeping her focus towards education.
“I received multiple notes from students who were then in college and they thanked me for my lessons plans, the inspiration I gave them, and my love for them as people.” she said.