Closing Ranks

i282600889606944431._szw1280h1280_Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week and educators around the country were feted with breakfasts, luncheons, gift cards, and trinkets. Of course the standardized testing schedule is so crowded that there was no rest for the weary and school life went on in full force. It will be many weeks before teachers across the country get a bit of vacation and even then the legend of three months without work will not happen in reality. Teachers will work the summer school weeks in June or attend classes to keep their various certifications intact. By the last week in July they will once again be in full prep mode as they look forward to the beginning of the school year and to meeting a new group of students. It is the nature of the business to continually be in teaching mode that only those who have engaged in the profession or their families understand.

Ironically in the same week in which teachers were enjoying the bags of snacks that they received as a bonus for their good work, a Georgetown University study appeared for public perusal that ranked college degrees in terms of their monetary value. Even I was stunned by the place where education majors landed, which was dead last among those with college degrees and only slightly better than individuals with high school diplomas who have a skilled trade. It was shocking to note that virtually every other major had a financial edge over those who choose to earn the credentials to become teachers. This speaks volumes about how our American society views teachers and what it is willing to spend to educate our children.

Finland is highly touted as having the best schools in the world. Part of their secret is to make the field of education a highly coveted and respected profession. Only one in ten students who wish to become teachers make it into the university programs that will prepare them. Teachers in that country have the status of doctors, lawyers, engineers. Young people who emerge from college with degrees that will allow them inside classrooms are considered to be the cream of the crop. Once they begin their work they receive compensation that is considerably higher than the average citizen earns. The people of Finland understand that education must be one of their highest priorities and they invest money in the process and in the people who make it happen. Only the best become teachers.

Here in the United States there is a general lack of regard for teachers. Their pay does not keep up with that of other professions. The explanation most often given is that teachers work shorter hours and fewer months than others but anyone who has ever worked inside a classroom knows that nothing could be further from the truth. A fun activity that math teachers sometimes do is to calculate the pay of teachers in terms of an hourly wage by including time spent preparing and tutoring after official hours, attending weekend and summer classes, and grading and lesson planning at home. When all of the calculations are done we learn that teachers on average earn a bit less than minimum wage.

Teaching is one of the few professions in which employees purchase hundreds of dollars of supplies from their own pockets and generally pay for the advanced course work that they need. Those who work with gifted and talented students or Advanced Placement classes must continually update their skills with programs that require them enroll in classes throughout the school year and during their so-called summer vacation. Sometimes they are reimbursed but often they are not. There is a general belief that teachers are sipping on wine next to their swimming pools while the rest of the world is working away. The citizens have little understanding of just how much time and effort teachers expend without pay or even a pat on the back.

There is also the old canard that “those who can’t, teach.” The general public seems to believe that once someone has exhausted all efforts to land a place in other fields they reluctantly turn to education as a last resort, thus teachers are essentially rejects. This faulty thinking doesn’t take into account those who genuinely wish to be teachers nor does it note that only those who truly love the job are willing to stay. A real analysis would reveal that the work conditions are not exactly conducive to keeping anyone who hopes to make a fortune, gain fame, or be treated with high regard. It takes a very special person indeed to choose education as a lifelong career. Only the truly dedicated remain for the duration and psychological tests often reveal that they are people who rank exceptionally high on the altruism scale.

I once took a test designed to determine which jobs suited me best. Teaching was there in the final analysis along with such professions as lawyer, doctor, minister, social worker, and counselor. The majority of teachers fall into similar modes. Instead of valuing their contributions to society there is generally a suspicion that they may not even be worth the pittance that the lawmakers deign to allot for them. While others boast about their yearly bonuses at Christmastime parties teachers must be content to appreciate what they know to be their intangible rewards for changing lives. When non educators decide which textbooks those same teachers will use, how many tests they will give their students, and what their annual salaries will be educators must accept the decisions even when they know that they are innately wrong.

Teachers are rarely consulted for expert testimony. Everyone once went to school so they all believe that they are totally capable of determining what exactly is wrong with our schools and these days teachers take much of the heat. There are few occupations other than perhaps police work that are so openly and often derided than education. It is almost amazing that anyone ever thinks of becoming a teacher given the environment that presently exists.

I was in the education business for the entirety of my work life. My degree cost me the same as someone who majored in finance or engineering. I put in as many hours reading, writing papers and studying for tests and yet somehow the value of my efforts was deemed to be less than even before I had spent even one day proving my mettle in a classroom. The future of our nation’s workforce rests in the hands of teachers and yet we compensate them as though they are not as worthy as their college educated peers. In the average American high school there will be countless teachers with advanced degrees that earn them only a thousand dollars or  more each year than those with only bachelor degrees. Only an elite few earn bonuses of true merit and those are often derived from formulas that don’t actually measure the day to day contributions and efforts of the vast majority of those who man our classrooms.

I will be the first to admit that there are bad teachers among the good. They are laggards who are simply earning a paycheck with little effort. We need to make it easier to rid our schools of the chaff. There are few professions in which an individual may merely coast and still receive the same compensation as his/her peers. The tendency to treat our teachers with formulaic systems is outmoded and unproductive. We really must elevate the job to a true profession that that will mean being honest about those who are unable to produce. We need to staff our schools with only the best and it will be difficult to make the needed changes but not impossible. If Finland is able to do it then we should be able to succeed as well.

Every teacher appreciates the cute coffee mugs, boxes of candy and stuffed animals that students and parents bring to them. In fact these artifacts become treasures. I have an entire room that houses the trophies that my fans awarded me over the years. I know who gave me each item and I know how much love was attached to them. These mementoes are as priceless to me as the knowledge that I have done more to insure the progress of society that anyone will ever be able to measure. Nonetheless I also believe that if our schools are ever to climb to the top of international ranks we must be honest in our assessment of what is wrong. Changing the way we select, prepare, and then compensate and honor our teachers must be one of the first things to consider. When we begin to regard teachers in the way that they deserve instead of continually criticizing, browbeating, and humiliating them while paying them as though they are unskilled laborers then perhaps we will see an uptick. If we truly want to attract the best among us to man our classrooms then we have to put our money where our mouth is and begin to treat our educators like the professionals that they are.

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