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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Wages of Teaching

Many of you have probably already seen it, but I am just getting around to posting about Anna Quindlen's column from last week's Newsweek, The Wages of Teaching:
Teaching's the toughest job there is. [. . .] The average new teacher today makes just under $30,000 a year, which may not look too bad for a twentysomething with no mortgage and no kids. But soon enough the newbies realize that they can make more money and not work anywhere near as hard elsewhere. After a lifetime of hearing the old legends about cushy hours and summer vacations, they figure out that early mornings are for students who need extra help, evenings are for test corrections and lesson plans, and weekends and summers are for second and even third jobs to try to pay the bills.

According to the Department of Education, one in every five teachers leaves after the first year, and almost twice as many leave within three. If any business had that rate of turnover, someone would do something smart and strategic to fix it. This isn't any business. It's the most important business around, the gardeners of the landscape of the human race. [my emphasis]
I think one of the strongest and most insidious myths of modern America is the myth that teachers have it easy--the summers off and weekends free crap. I haven't had a summer off since I was 16. My weekends are not--and, as long as I'm teaching, will not be--free.

The reason the myth is insidious and particularly destructive is that it contributes to the idea that teaching is neither an honorable profession nor one that we should encourage our best and brightest to attend to. The easy extrapolation is that people who teach must be lazy fools who can't hack it in a real job that takes real talent or real effort. Worse, given that so many teachers leave the profession in the first three years (in urban areas, the attrition rate is much higher), the myth makes those who bail feel even more inadequate that they can't hack it at such an easy job. Teachers quit because teaching is hard work. I have always invited anyone who doubts this, and who criticizes teachers based on this myth, to join me for a day at my school. Do my job, for just one day, and see if you still believe the myth. Sykes? Belling? That crotchety guy up north? None of them want to do it.

I also have never fully understood why, given the pervasiveness of the myth that my job is so flippin' easy, there aren't lines around the block of people signing up to do it.

Back to Quindlen:
The point about tying teaching salaries to widget standards is that it's hard to figure out a useful way to measure the merit of what a really good teacher does. [. . .] Tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement. Tying them to standardized tests makes rote regurgitation the centerpiece of schools. Both are blind to the merit of teachers who shoulder the challenging work of educating those less able, more troubled, from homes where there are no pencils, no books, even no parents. A teacher whose Advanced Placement class sends everyone on to top-tier colleges; a teacher whose remedial-reading class finally gets through to some, but not all, of a student group that is failing. There is merit in both.

The National Education Association has been pushing for a minimum starting salary of $40,000 for all teachers. Why not? If these people can teach 6-year-olds to add and get adolescents to attend to algebra, surely we can do the math to get them a decent wage. Since the corporate world is the greatest, and richest, beneficiary of well-educated workers, maybe a national brain trust might be set up that would turn a tax on corporate profits into an endowment to raise teacher salaries. Maybe states and communities could also pass regulations with this simple proviso: no school administrator should ever receive a percentage raise greater than the raise teachers get. Neither should state legislators.

In recent years teacher salaries have grown, if they've grown at all, at a far slower rate than those of other professionals, often lagging behind inflation. Yet teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students. I am a writer because of the encouragement of teachers. Surely most Americans must feel the same, that there were women and men who helped them levitate just a little above the commonplace expectations they had for themselves.
Good luck with that, Anna--asking corporate America to shoulder an extra tax burden to ensure that their workers are better educated.

Let me digress here for a second to remind everyone that Quindlen is falling into another too-common trap, buying another insidious myth about American public education. That's the myth that education serves only or primarily to shape children into cogs for corporate machines. (That crotchety guy from up north conveniently posted a retelling of this myth this morning.) Jonathan Kozol, when I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago, reminded me of this fact: Children have value beyond the dollar signs corporate America may see in them. An educated child, who can think and reason for herself, is a worthy end in itself. Yet for a century, public education has been seemingly beholden to the idea that schools should be an assembly line to prepare workers for the assembly line. That attitude--not whole language, not big high schools, not "new math"--is the attitude that threatens the quality of education in this country. And it contributes to and reinforces the first myth: If all you want is cookie-cutter product from your schools, then teachers need to be no more than cookie cutters themselves.

Quindlen's big point, though, is that teachers deserve more money. Let me be clear, speaking only for myself: I don't want more money. Sure, it would be nice to finally have my summers off, or to have a car newer than eight years old, or to finally retire that student loan debt. But more money is not a priority for me. I have never asked for it, and I never will. And it incenses me when people assume that's what I want--my district's superintendent, for example, in trying to justify how he screwed up our health care in the last contract, would only talk about how salaries went up, and how teachers would get their retro pay and be happy.

However, there is value in the idea that starting salaries should be higher. A math major coming out of college could easily earn more than $40,000 in private industry. Same thing for a chemist, an engineer, an electronics specialist, a physicist. We English majors have little other choice--professional poets are few and far between--but even still, I would like to see better English majors attracted to teaching. It may only be higher salaries that spark the lines around the corner of people wanting to do my job.

So what do I want, if not money? It's simple: Shut up and let us do our jobs. Because (almost) everybody is a product of the American public education system, they feel they have the right to criticize it, suggest ways to change it; everybody is suddenly an expert. If Quindlen is right that the American people should be our biggest advocates, then those same people ought to recognize that it was the teachers who reached them--not the meddling anti-tax forces, the know-it-all politicians, or the privateers who currently run the Department of Education--who deserve the praise and rewards. It was the teachers who helped them "levitate" who created conditions for success, not vouchers or Intelligent Design or corporate America.

Think back for just a second about your favorite school teacher, one who really did help you levitate, and ask yourself this: Would I meddle now in how that teacher does her job? Would that teacher have been as effective with me then if he'd had to prepare me for a standardized test? Would that teacher agree with me if I'd said to her face that she had an easy job--summers off and weekends free?

You know what the answers are. You know what the solution is: Stop perpetuating myths and start respecting and supporting what we teachers do. Then work on your family, friends, neighbors, and legislators to do the same.

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