As usual, life (by which I really mean “school”) has gotten in the way of blogging. But I’ve finally reached a less stressful point in the semester. I have a few days where I can actually breathe, and I’ve got some things to say. They’re not as timely as they could have been had I gotten around to posting them a few weeks (or months) ago, but better late than never, I suppose.
I also apologize in advance if this post gets a bit long-winded. For a while now, I’ve had a fairly focused post in mind, but the longer I went without writing anything, the more I’ve added to it in my head. Now I have what should probably be at least three or four separate posts, but I’ve decided to combine them into two, because they are—to my mind—very much related.
The first point is a feeling of anger about some of the invective that’s been spewed by those who oppose teachers’ unions. I’m not personally a member of a union, and I often think for all the good they do for their members, they generate some serious negative externalities that deserve to be examined in the light of day. I could probably rant for days about how the MLB Player’s Association has ruined baseball, but I’ll spare you. So, suffice it to say, even though I certainly lean left, I’m not in lockstep with unions, whether teachers’ or otherwise.
Regardless of your political views, though, everyone should be able to recognize that teachers have an incredibly difficult but incredibly important job, and in most cases, they do it for very little pay and only average benefits. “Summers off” seems to get thrown around as a benefit, but I don’t think that counts if you also use that to justify the low pay. Let’s not forget that many teachers have to work summer jobs to make ends meet.
For the sake of simple math, let’s say that a teacher works 40 weeks a year. That gives her eight weeks “off” in the summer, two weeks around Christmas, a week for Spring Break, and a week’s worth of assorted other holidays that other workers might not receive. And let’s say that this teacher’s salary is $40,000, or $1,000 per working week. (For the record, that’s a sum many teachers—especially those early-career teachers most susceptible to burnout and career change—would love to have.) And let’s say that this teacher, when she’s “working,” puts in 50 hours/week—probably a conservative. So before taxes, this teacher makes $20/hour, about as much as a journeyman plumber.
And this brings me to my next point. No one teaches for the money. That should be obvious, but maybe it’s not. Most of the teachers I know chose teaching because they are selfless people. They teach because they feel a desire to give something back to society. Because they want to make a difference. And they are willing to make sacrifices—financial and otherwise—to feel as if they are doing some good. As such, their identities as teachers and their identities as people are often one and the same.
Tell a teacher enough times that he or she is doing a terrible job, and the truly good ones—the ones who really care—will start to look for another career. If you can’t be a good person, if you can’t give back to society as well as you had hoped, why not at least make a little money? By bashing teachers, I fear that we drive away not the “bad” ones, but the good ones.
I can only speak for myself on this one, but I know that too much of my self-worth as a person is wrapped up in the kind of teacher that I am. When I feel that I have failed a student, I feel that I am a failure. Unlike some in the corporate world, I don’t say, “Well, it’s other people’s money. I’ll still get paid at the end of the week.” Because it’s not other people’s money—it’s other people.
It’s not uncommon for me to work from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm, come home, take care of some chores around the house, eat dinner, and then put in a couple more hours of grading before bed. During baseball season, I go strong from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, skip the chores (leaving them to my overburdened by amazingly understanding wife), and then do an hour or two of work before I crash. And I work (planning, grading, etc.) almost every Sunday, usually somewhere from 4-8 hours, catching up from the previous week and getting ready for the week ahead.
I’ve purposely avoided calculating the exact number of hours I work in a week, because I’m pretty good at basic math. I’m afraid the hourly wage would be intolerable, especially in those weeks where I feel like I wasn’t able to do “enough” for my students. Of course, I chose this line of work, so I’m not asking for pity. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we teachers be spared the nonsense that we don’t work hard for what little we make. Are there some freeloaders and hangers-on? Of course, just as there are in all professions. But the overwhelming majority of teachers and dedicated, hardworking, selfless people.
I suppose many Wall Street executives are dedicated and hardworking people as well (selfless, I’m not so sure), but I know that I, for one, could endure a whole lot more negativity toward the profession if I had more money. We’ve seen a whole lot of negativity directed at the fat cats on Wall Street over the past year or two, but many of those same people received multi-million dollar bonuses even as their companies tanked. If I got a multi-million dollar bonus, perhaps I could buy a pair of those really nice noise-cancelling headphones from Bose. Then you could gripe all day long about how easy teachers have it and it might not bother me a bit.
Actually, it would probably still get me fired up, because as I said before, my identity as a person is wrapped up in my identity as a teacher. At my core, I am a teacher, and I am not the only one who feels this way. So, don’t attack us and then act surprised when we get indignant and start storming the statehouse. And more to the point, don’t attack teachers and then expect the problems we face in education to clear themselves up. If teachers are the number one factor in student achievement, as many politicians and “reformers” claim, they need to be rewarded and encouraged, not browbeaten.
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but ultimately, to devalue the profession in any way is counterproductive. It’s already hard enough to find qualified teachers, is it not? So whose bright idea was it to challenge their economic security and make disparaging remarks about them at the same time? I’m sure that will bring aspiring teachers out of the woodwork.
This brings me to my final point. I finally had the opportunity to watch Waiting for Superman over the weekend. I’m still processing it, but I do think it’s very much related to what I’ve written above: debates over how to improve education get to the very core of what we value as a society, and what we value as a society is very much in a state of flux. Ultimately, though, Waiting for Superman proposes incremental changes at best. Even if we could snap our fingers and make the changes that the filmmakers seem to support, our education system would still be fundamentally flawed. In that sense, the film is little more than a red herring, diverting our attention from a more fundamental (and, likely, more controversial and intractable) problem. I’ll address this in my next post.