I’ve been reading about teacher shortages from North Carolina to San Francisco, from Indiana to Arizona. Yesterday, I heard an Ad Council advertisement on an indy rock station imploring young people to become teachers. CEA president Kerrie Dallman pointed out on Facebook that enrollment in teacher prep programs statewide is on the decline.
There are so many reasons that this saddens me. Of course I care about kids, so I want people to want to be teachers, but I also feel sad for people who feel called to teach but despair that teaching is no longer a viable profession.
People often say things to me like “You teachers should be paid like professional athletes or CEOs, your job is so important.” Don’t get me wrong; offer me a multi-million-dollar contract and I won’t say no, but really, the pay I agreed to going into the profession was just fine by me. I agreed to a salary schedule that went up in modest increments as I gained experience, and I could have moved more quickly if I’d gotten a master’s, but between weekends at speech meets followed by raising kids, I opted to stay at a bachelor’s with graduate credits that never jelled into a master’s. My choice. The salary wasn’t amazing, but the benefits were excellent. All in all, I felt fairly compensated for the majority of my career. Now in Jeffco, three people with zero experience in any aspect of education arbitrarily bestow four percent here, one percent there, even as the cost of living has risen fifteen percent since teachers last had a reliable salary schedule.
Of course, just as you cannot measure all the good teachers do in our kids’ test scores, neither can you measure all the benefits of teaching in dollars and cents. I have loved my career. I cannot begin to tell you how many terrific kids I’ve taught—from the “slackers” to the type-A overachievers, they all bring something to love. I love all the ah-ha moments and the laughter and the thoughtful silences as they have grappled with Big Ideas. I love my colleagues, who share my passion and are so, so smart and funny.
But I wouldn’t encourage a young person to go into teaching right now. Probably the biggest reason for that is because education, as a field, has become more and more adult-focused, and less and less kid-focused. Our evaluation system is based on what adults want to see, rather than what kids need. It’s based on tests adults create for profit, rather than on what kids need to be curious and scrappy. Policies are based upon what makes adults’ lives easier, rather than on creating an environment conducive to student growth as whole people. Laws around education are created by the American Legislative Exchange Council based on wringing profit from tight school budgets rather than by educators. The only people we seem to believe are singularly undeserving of any voice in education is teachers.
I know that education is not alone in this. Insurance companies dictate much of America’s medical care these days. The fact that they are profit-driven, rather than care-driven, has resulted in America having one of the most expensive, least effective healthcare systems in the industrialized world, despite dedicated healthcare workers’ efforts.
See, it’s not just teaching. It’s everything. There is this emerging mindset that the best system is one in which people at the top of an industry (preferably people who have not actually worked in the industry, but rather just invest in it; people who work very briefly in the trenches will do in a pinch) make millions or even billions by virtue of the fact that they already have billions of dollars. All those who actually make an industry function, be it production, customer service, basic daily administration, etc., should be paid as little as possible because none of us are making much, and it is good and proper that we should muddle through life terrified of the people at the top and sniping in petty jealousy at those closest to or below us.
The big social stuff drives me nuts and makes me want to discourage people from teaching, but really, I can’t think of a better field. Instead, I wish we’d all work toward what I have in my very own classroom.
I’m not better than my students because I have more money, or even because I have more education or more life experience. I’m not better than my students at all. In human value, we’re equals. I have authority (because I have more education and more life experience). Ultimately, I call the shots in terms of how my classroom runs, but kids get input. Why shouldn’t they? I have found that most kids want a good future, so they want a classroom that runs well, is safe, and allows them to learn. Really—they do!
My principal has authority over me, because he has education specific to school administration and sees the bigger picture of the school, but he listens to and respects me when I have something to say. The superintendent, school board, even taxpayers should have a voice, too, but as big investors with no experience in education gain power, these voices are increasingly ignored or paid off. I get that every large organization needs a hierarchy. I even get the idea that, the more of the structure you oversee, the more money you should be paid. It’s a big responsibility. But I challenge the notion that the hierarchy entitles those at the top to treat the people down the ladder like chattel.
People say, “You have a choice about what work you do.” But if this is standard practice in every industry, what choice does anyone have? Isn’t that what fuels the sniping? “I get treated like dirt, so you should, too!” Really? This is the best system we can devise, the one on which all industries should be modeled? I don’t think so!
This is why workers organize. No one knows better than tradesmen what makes their workplace safe, what enhances their ability to be productive. (By the way, there comes a point in demanding hours and refusing to make allowances for work/life balance where you actually begin to undermine productivity and erode cost efficiency in every field. Penny-wise and pound-foolish. How is that a good model?) No one knows better than those who spend their days in schools and classrooms, for whom every child has a name and unique gifts and challenges, what makes schools good for their kids. Sure, there may be some parts of the big picture that individual teachers, even collectively, may not see. That’s why collaboration all along the hierarchy is vital; if you have that collaboration, you have healthy schools and the foundation for a thriving democracy.
Get that kind of collaboration going in every industry, and you’ll improve the quality of life for everyone in America. Then people can answer their calling—whether it’s teaching, healthcare, manufacturing, service, whatever—and everyone gets by just fine. Will there be indolent people who don’t want to work hard at the top and bottom of the hierarchy and everywhere in between? Sure. But let’s face it: most of us just want an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s labor. I don’t believe we can’t work it out.