Saturday, August 6, 2011

teachers don't do it for the money

In a recent interview with Matt Damon, a reporter suggested that teachers would work harder if they didn't have tenure. To his credit, Damon upbraided the reporter (and her cameraman, who suggested that 10% of teachers are bad, a statistic he could not justify) for insinuating that teachers are lazy.

But it's the bias of the question that I want to address. The notion is that teachers are lazy and that tenure breeds further laziness. It's a variation on the old saw, "Those who can do, and those who can't teach." This saying is so ingrained in our culture that no one thinks to question it. It is just plain false. Worse than that, it is extremely disrespectful it is to a group of hard working professionals who are among the worst paid for their level of education.

This disrespect manifests in a number of different ways. By virtue of the fact that most people have had some schooling, somehow everyone fancies themselves an expert on education. Many parents second guess how a teacher does her job, and not a few do this openly.  What they don't consider is that teachers have at least about two years of schooling beyond a BA, either for a teaching credential or a Masters with a teaching credential. As part of this training, teachers have learned educational theory, learning psychology,  and  assessment techniques. Further, they have done practice teaching, written countless lesson plans, and have sat for long credentialing tests. And the education does not stop there. States require that teachers pursue a certain number of professional development hours each year. Can you imagine someone going into a doctor's office or a lawyer's office and telling them how to do their job? This happens to teachers all the time.

Another way this shows up is in our public life. How many times have you heard a politician say, "I plan to make education my top priority," or "I want to make education in our city/state/nation second to none," or "I want to be the education mayor/governor/president/dog catcher?" Indeed, over the last 30 years, we have had such such questionable programs as the Regular Education Initiative,  Goals 2000, Reading First, No Child Left Behind, and most recently Race to the Top. Each of these programs are less about pedagogy than they are a political agenda. The two most recent programs NCLB and RTTT focus less on learning than getting children to pass a test. They second guess what teachers do by in effect saying "Our kids aren't learning therefore there is something wrong with the system. Ergo it is the teachers, and we have to make sure they are doing their job." These assumptions are based on faulty premises, but the result is still to second guess the professional.

A third way educators are shown this level of disrespect is how they are paid. Consider that you are paid $100 a day for an eight hour day. At the end of the week your gross would be $500 or about $2000 per month. (Clearly this is not what most teachers earn, but stay I'm using simple low numbers to keep the math easy and make a point.) But this is not what happens with a teacher's pay. If a teacher were paid $100 a day, what they would gross at the end of the month is less then $2000. Why? Because most teachers are not paid everything at once. What they get instead is $2000-y, where y equals an amount the teacher will be paid later--in the summer, as a bookkeeper once told me "when you're not working." And there's the rub, because most teachers do work in the summer either teaching summer school, doing research, attending conferences, working on their curriculum, or creating new lessons to make the material more engaging for the students.  The other thing that is faulty about this example is that most teachers put in more than eight hours a day. There are clubs and teams to advise. There is a lot of time before and after school, writing and correcting tests and homework. There is a lot of work done off the clock.

A single teacher may be responsible for anywhere from 30 to 120 students in a given semester. The time each teacher has to spend with a student on their distinct needs is reduced greatly when other things (like standardized tests) are introduced into the mix. I had a second grade teacher recently tell me that she has to give her students some standardized test once every two weeks or so. She has 35 students in her class, and in a given 50 minute period, she has barely two minutes to spend with each student. She has no volunteers, no teacher's aides. She has only strategies. Most of her students do not speak English as a first language, and several have emotional issues. Yet she has to work a second job to make ends meet like so many other teachers.

The notion that people enter this profession is also a flawed one. One of my most recent students has spent several years working for a public relations firm. The work is good, and he does well, but he wants to teach English in high schools. He wants to teach fully aware that he could stay where he is and make money. It's not about that. He loves teaching, and because he does, he will be a great teacher. A former colleague of mine left her job as an attorney also to become a high school English teacher. She worked at two of the more competitive private schools in Honolulu before moving to Washington. Another friend of mine and former colleague was trained as an engineer. He teaches math and physics. He is an excellent teacher. I could go on. The teaching profession is full of such examples.

People become teachers not because they are incompetent, but because they want to teach. They want to share their enthusiasm for their subject area with young minds. They should be accorded the respect due any professional and not considered somehow less than for choosing a difficult, thankless, yet noble profession. As this new school year begins, it would great for us to ditch the old "those who can't" attitude, and ask "How can we help?" "What do you, the teacher of my beloved children, need to do help my kids learn?" Respect the teacher for the highly trained individual he or she is. You will not be sorry.