This post has been a long time coming, and I have been hesitant to write it. However, lately I have felt two things more and more: the first thing is the pressure to not only be perfect as a teacher, but also the pressure from parents, politicians, and community members to do more, to be more, and to bend over backwards to help their kid, or their cause. The second thing is that I don’t get paid enough to do it.
However, I have been afraid to say that out loud, because inevitably I hear one (or two...or three) of several different arguments, varying from those that are valid, to those that are uninformed, to those that are down-right condescending or insulting. In the end, though, I can’t be silent any longer. I may get backlash, I may get support, but I can’t NOT respond to these arguments any more. Here they are, along with my response, in no particular order. Enjoy. (Or don’t.)
1. Get a different job.
I have heard this argument so many times I’ve lost count: “Well, if you don’t like it, do something else.” While this is, unfortunately, what many teachers (good ones, too) are doing, it’s not really a long-term solution. It invites good teachers to leave because they just can’t pay their bills on a teacher’s salary, and allows bad teachers to stay because desperate school districts have no other option, and neither do the bad teachers. It tells me that there is no interest in really fixing the problem, or making an effort to show teachers that they have value, and instead people would rather that teachers shut up, or get out. That they don’t mind keeping the bad teachers, as long as they don’t have to pay them more. It also implies that teachers should just be satisfied with what they get, and if they aren’t satisfied they’d better try something else, because no one is going to change things any time soon. They propose a deceptively simple solution, trivializing the problem, and making teachers out to be whiners who can’t solve their own “simple” problems.
Teachers go to school for years and years (many I work with have a Master’s Degree), but they don’t do this to simply quit their profession because people refuse to pay them any more money. Imagine you go to your boss and ask for a raise. Is “If you don’t like what I pay you, go somewhere else” really a satisfactory answer for you? When you’ve put in the hours, earned the credentials, mastered the skills, and shown success in your work, are you really satisfied with simply going somewhere else and starting over? Maybe, if you work at McDonald’s. However, if that is not the case, my guess is that logically, you’re going to stay where you’ve already invested so much time and effort, hoping that things will improve, rather than investing time, money, effort, education, and other sacrifices into an entirely new career. If people don’t want to wait around, luckily, most could get another job in the same field and potentially make more money. For teachers, however, the entire field faces this problem, so they really would have to start over with a new career. It is insulting when people insinuate that teachers can simply “get another job” when they’ve invested so much into their teaching career.
2. Well, you chose it!
Ah yes, the “you knew what you were getting into, so deal with it” argument. The “you made your bed, now sleep in it” attack. Yes, I chose to be a teacher. I chose it, for good or for bad. I chose to work long hours, to deal with extra work, extra meetings, disrespect, legislation, testing, pay-for-performance, and all the other things that come along with teaching. I chose a job that allows very little time off during the school year, and what time I do get off is almost harder than just going in to work because of all the preparation it takes to help someone else do my job while I’m gone. I chose to deal with drama and fights between hormonal teenagers. I chose to be a policeman, detective, counselor, janitor, librarian, entertainer, organizer, monitor, event planner, and all the other jobs-within-my-job that come along with being a teacher. I chose to have my heart break when some students move on to high school, and to heave a sigh of relief when others do (finally!). I chose to love them, and want to kill them, all at the same time. Yes, I chose to be a teacher. But that doesn’t mean I have to be satisfied with my salary. That’s like saying you should never ask for a raise because you knew the salary you started at, and should be satisfied with it. Sometimes I wish people considered teaching to be the same as the job they go to every day. Why don’t the same rules apply?
3. You get your summers off, and you get off at 4 o’clock.
I figured I might as well address this one next, since some people’s feathers got ruffled in the last paragraph, when I mentioned “little time off during the school year.” “What? You get your whole summer off! I’d kill for that!” “You go home every day at FOUR! How can I get a sweet deal like that?” It makes all teachers sound like lazy slugs, who chose the job because they could get off early, and take the summer off. Before you start to argue that THAT’S why teachers get paid so little, let me remind you of a few things. The first is that yes, I am on “contract time” from 8a.m. to 4 p.m., and most people in the traditional work force work until five. However, my 8hour day includes a 20 minute lunch, which I often scarf down while making copies, or running errands for student council (more on that later). Most working people get an hour lunch break when they work 8 hours. Even Wal-Mart does that. But teaching is a job that requires you to be present, all the time. Bathroom breaks are almost unheard of, and prep hour is the time we plan for the next day, run more errands, make copies, send emails, and yes—occasionally—check Facebook. You know, the kind of thing that most people get to do all day.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that the United States Congress was in session about 126 days in 2013, and plans to be in session 113 days in 2014. Teachers are in school 180 days a year, which does not include in-service (teacher training) days, or the weeks they spend finishing up the school year in June, or preparing for the new school year to start in August. Most teachers only get about a month to a month and a half “off” of school, with many using the summer as a time to further professional development, plan lessons, and prepare for the next year. Many justify the salary of Congress (over $170,000 for the lowest paid member) because the work of Congressmen doesn’t end when they go home. But neither does the work of teachers, who spend hours and hours planning, grading ,prepping, fulfilling outside of classroom duties (like teaching newspaper, yearbook, student council, debate, after-school programs, sports, FFA, FCCLA, the list goes on and on), and many other things. For most teachers, work doesn’t end when they leave the building, and the more hours they work, the less money they “make.”
4. If you work outside of the hours you get paid for, you’re just stupid.
Yes, I’ve heard this one. I think most people would agree that not doing your job is not an option, so the fact that mine takes more time than can possibly be fit into an 8 hour work day, means I work longer than 8 hours. There’s not really another option. I either work longer, or I don’t do my job. It’s not stupid, it’s necessary. Simple as that.
5. But, don’t you do it for the “intrinsic rewards”?
This one is probably the hardest argument to swallow. Probably because it is the one I hear the most from my teacher colleagues. I almost am afraid to bring up this whole topic because of the “intrinsic rewards” argument. Basically, it says that if the idea of helping other people, of seeing students succeed, of receiving warm hugs and smiles from students isn’t enough for you, you are a bad teacher. There is something flawed in your “teacher-make-up.” It is the holier-than-thou argument, because a “good” teacher would be satisfied with simply making children’s lives better, and not ask for any more compensation than that. “Remember, we do it for the kids, not the money!”
Here’s the thing: I love kids. I love seeing them succeed. I love seeing them in the hall at school, and hearing them shout my name excitedly as they wave and smile, just because they saw me. I love that they do this knowing I will shout and smile and wave back, and that’s what they want. I love getting to know them, and becoming their friend, their confidant. I love getting through to that one kid who all the other teachers warned me about, and hearing that my class is their “favorite” when I know school is the hardest part of their lives. BUT—it’s not enough. There, I said it; start gathering your slinging-stones. But before you start slinging, let me explain.
It’s not enough because the world doesn’t work that way. I can’t call my bank and say, “Gosh, you are the BEST bank ever, and I’m never leaving this bank! Thanks so much!” and hope they let my mortgage payment slide. I can’t hug the clerk at the grocery store, and tell her I always go to her check-out line because she’s my favorite, and hope that pays for my groceries. I can’t go to the doctor and say, “Wow, I bet you sure feel good helping people!” and hope he’s okay if I don’t pay him that time. While this would be a wonderful way to live—everyone gives what they can, and others show gratitude and help how they can—it isn’t the real world we live in. The real world doesn’t work that way, and teachers live in the real world.
We use the intrinsic rewards argument to justify paying teachers what we pay them, but we would never use it in other professions with obvious intrinsic rewards. I’m sure it feels good when doctors save lives; I’m sure it is a nice experience to help someone win an unfair case in court; I’ll bet it is a great feeling to design a building and see it come to fruition. But we never bring up the “intrinsic rewards” argument with any other profession, because we know that logically, it’s not enough. The basic truth is that we pay people what we think they’re worth, regardless of any “intrinsic rewards” their profession holds.
6. Stop whining.
This is actually a new argument, but I saw it today in the comments section of a blog about teachers, and how difficult their job really is. The comments claimed the author was whining, just like “all teachers,” and suggested they were denigrating their own profession by being so whiny. Seriously? When you go ask for a raise, does your boss call you whiny? When you make a serious and thought out argument, pleading your cause for more fair treatment, are you being whiny? This just blew my mind.
7. Raise the standards of teaching, and we’ll raise your pay.
This is actually a good thought, that the standards for teachers in some places are so low that anyone can get a job, or get teaching credentials, so it lowers the credibility and validity of the profession. However, I don’t agree with the order of things here. If teachers continue to be paid so little, eventually only the very desperate will apply, and the profession will crumble in on itself. The only way to justify raising the standards, is to raise the pay. Raising the standards (which, for the record, are actually quite high in most places) will only deter some teachers from applying, because why go to all the effort for so little reward? (Again, not talking intrinsic rewards here.)
Then there are the other demands we put on teaching. We say, through extensive testing and re-testing of students, that we expect a lot from teachers. We expect them to teach well enough that their students can pass increasingly difficult tests. The testing tells us that what teachers do is important—that what they produce is of value; student achievement is very important, and must be measured and improved upon. Billions of dollars are being spent on this each year—to measure what our students are learning. Teacher pay is being threatened based on the success or failure of these students. But what we need isn’t more tests, or fancier books and computers, what we need is better teachers. I know for a fact that a good teacher can do more with pencils, paper, and a white board, than a bad teacher can do with all the laptops and fancy textbooks in the world. So where should our money really be spent? The answer is not in more testing or better computers, it is in our teachers. If we show them they are our priority, that we value what they bring to the table, then we might get more teachers who live up to high standards (again, many, many already do) and we can start holding them to it. Until then, however, you get what you pay for. (I should mention here that there are many good teachers, even with the salaries what they are. They teach because they want to help students learn, and they think that is worth the sacrifices they make in salary—but they shouldn’t be expected to do so, and neither should anyone else. Can you imagine how great they would be if they were paid what they’re worh??)
In the end
Teaching is great, but it is difficult—harder than we give it credit for. It has its own rewards, but teachers don’t get paid enough. Period.
I may not be a doctor doing brain surgery, but I am asked to understand fully how a brain works when learning, so I can mold and manipulate their learning experiences to their fullest advantages; I am not a movie star, but I am expected to educate AND entertain a class of kids who sometimes couldn’t care less about adverbs, while they’re dealing with everything from bullies to abuse, and broken hearts to hormones; I don’t have a law degree, but I am often asked to be judge, jury, and bailiff when someone cheats in my class, or an argument gets out of hand. This, among many other things, is my job, and I accept it. But it is not easy, because in this country we assign value to something by the dollar amount we attach to it. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, super models, athletes, movie stars, they are all assigned high dollar values, because we value what they can do. Perhaps it is because we don’t all assume we could do their job better than they do it, or maybe because after 12-13 years of school, we think teaching is as easy as our teachers made it look. Perhaps for these reasons, teaching has been assigned a dollar amount among the lowest of degreed professions, and even lower than many professions that don’t require any type of degree. I am not trying to be an education snob here, I am just saying it like it is. I feel that being a teacher is one of the most important jobs on the planet (how many paying jobs are there which could be done without some kind of a teacher showing them the way?) but that doesn’t pay my bills.
Sometimes I really wish that I could just say I don’t get paid enough, and not get the backlash from ignorant people who think my profession deserves what it gets, and I have no right to ask for more.