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There are two camps in education: those who support the practice of rewarding student performance and those who believe academic achievement should provide its own reward. As a grade school teacher in Southeast D.C., I’m very pro-reward. My justification is based on an adult parallel: Adults who do a good job expect to be rewarded in return.

But step through the looking glass of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) bureaucracy and something as fundamental to motivation as a paycheck becomes a rare commodity, like winning the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Paychecks are no longer seen as just due, or money earned. For the time being, you have to be lucky or privileged to be paid in a timely manner for your work with the children of this city.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job, my students, and the fundamental transaction of education. It just becomes difficult to maintain enthusiasm when you have to beg for what is owed to you. Imagine getting to the end of the week at your job and having your employer tell you that your check, well, might be in the mail—or downtown at the central office. Or at another school. Or lost down some hobbit-hole in the system.

Although DCPS Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has proclaimed that changes are being made to attract and keep talented teachers in D.C. schools, it’s hard to imagine somebody deciding to join a system that can’t regularly compensate its employees. All those signing bonuses, gift certificates, and other extras aren’t going to help recruit new talent as long as teachers who are already in the system are standing in line for paychecks every time payday rolls around.

It began back in October, when the District—with much fanfare—instituted a brand-new automated pay system; those of us on the front line have been scrambling to get our checks ever since. When the first checks were supposed to be cut from the new system on Oct. 15, I was one of hundreds of teachers who did not receive their paychecks. That night, I made my way to the District Offices at 825 North Capitol St. NE to wait in line to secure my money. Fortunately, I had a check by 7 p.m. Others were not as lucky. My colleague from across the hall at school waited until 9 p.m. for her check—and wound up leaving empty-handed.

Again, on Nov. 1, checks were due to be issued. DCPS officials “thought ahead,” as they said, and issued the checks on Oct. 30 in case of mishaps. This time, my check was sent to the school I worked at last year, and I had to wait for it to find its way back to the central office before I could claim it.

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After teaching at Saturday Stars Academy from 8:30 a.m. until noon on Oct. 30, I and a fellow teacher took our seats at the DCPS payroll office across from the small gold sign that reads, “The Customer Is Always Right.” My friend’s check had also been sent to the school where she worked last year. (The sign was gone when I went back last week.)

It took some doing, but I finally received a check. My friend left empty-handed and in tears. Her creditors would be calling her—she could not afford to wait for days, let alone weeks, for pay. I was looking forward to Sunday, my first day off of the week. Fortunately, this time, I had received all the money that was due, and I would buy groceries and write checks for my bills.

Ten days before the next checks were due, Ackerman issued a two-page memo apologizing for the pay crisis. Her words failed to comfort me. I wondered if her paycheck had been late. When the Nov. 15 payday rolled around, I asked our school payroll person if checks were going to be mailed or whether they would be distributed at school. She didn’t know.

Payday came and no check—what a surprise. On a hunch, I called the school I taught at last year, and they had mine. It would be delivered to my current school in two days. I felt lucky when my paycheck showed up as promised.

Until I opened it. I had known when I went into teaching that it was not a lucrative endeavor, but my check on that day was in the amount of $11.10, possibly enough to cover the cab ride downtown to figure out what had happened to my wages. I had been expecting well over $1,000 for my regular salary plus payment for the two additional programs that I work in. What had been described as a “bureaucratic snafu” in the paper had become an immediate personal crisis. I was broke.

The $11.10 paycheck was handed to me by an upper-level administrator in DCPS, on the day of parent conferences. My first meeting was scheduled for noon. I had to stop payment on my electronic check to the credit card company, and I had to make a few calls to make sure that my credit rating wasn’t one more casualty of the school system’s inability to produce checks. Parents began to back up in my classroom while I sat on hold in the teacher’s lounge, making phone calls to my bank and creditors about late payments. The chief of finance was giving out letters for employees to send to creditors, but like a lot of people trying to get by on a teacher’s salary, I didn’t have time to mess around with letters.

Thursday, I woke up at normal time for school, but reported for duty at the payroll office instead. I went to Kinko’s and copied all of my documentation. (You can never be too careful with DCPS.) I filled out endless forms and submitted copies of the check and my timesheet.

My number was eventually called, and a check was found containing my regular pay. But hundreds of dollars in extracurricular pay—for my work in the after-school program and the Saturday Stars Academy—were nowhere in sight. I asked the woman assisting me about it, and she told me that some of it would come in the next day. It never did, and almost a week later, I still have not seen it.

The Washington Teachers’ Union has finally filed a grievance against DCPS for not paying its teachers. We are waiting to see how that plays out.

I recently received a certificate in honor of American Education Week from Superintendent Ackerman. She professed her appreciation for my work as a teacher in the District. It wasn’t much, but at least it came on time. CP