More on Teacher Pay.

Per our earlier discussion on $100,000 teacher salaries, I thought this post by Dr. Bitch was worth mentioning:

Sure, there are great natural teachers who do amazing things despite mediocre salaries, piles of administrative trivia driven by legislatures and/or fears of litigation, and the broad popular belief that teaching is easy and that therefore everyone and their dog is entitled to second-guess what happens in the classroom. And sure, there are also brilliant, driven students who can get into Harvard despite a lifetime of homelessness. …

But, exceptions aside, good teaching is something that people can be trained to do-–or at least trained to be better at. It *is* a profession, after all, much like medicine. And good students, too, can be trained: that’s the entire fucking point of education, after all.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can treat teachers like widgets and just “train” them in lieu of providing professional salaries. Or that any old teacher in front of any old student can do the kind of excellent job that we want every student to have access to. If you want people to adhere to professional standards, you need to pay them like professionals. And one important reason for that is that maintaining professional standards actually *does* cost money. Not just at the level of “the system,” either.

If the job is easy enough that people who are half burned out and/or not really paying attention can “go through the motions” and do it “well enough,” then fine; pay $40k/year. Your employees will be average, won’t be able to pay for ongoing training, won’t be able to take vacations very often to recharge, and won’t be willing or able to take their work home to a reasonably-appointed office space, since they won’t be able to afford the childcare, rent, equipment, or mortgages that make working at home possible. They won’t be able to afford the “networking” opportunities that keep them in touch with other professionals, who can alert them to new and interesting developments in various fields that can be brought into the classroom as examples, opportunities, or curricula (including field trips). They won’t be able to afford to provide students with the things that rich parents can afford to provide their children: educational games, toys and software; the ability to “try out” new, unfamiliar hobbies; the ability to experiment (which sometimes involves breaking or wasting materials) without being punished. They won’t be able to afford the “down time” that lets them come back every day and juggle not only the day’s curriculum, but all the emotional and psychological events that come up in any group of 20-40 (or more) young people every single day.

And yes, if they are bright, ambitious, and creative enough to be able to command six-figure salaries in other professions, they are unlikely to stick around teaching for more than a couple years because (1) teaching well actually is really hard work; and (2) we do, as a society, measure status in large part by income and lifestyle, and few bright, ambitious people really are going to feel happy for long living and being treated “lower” than their intellectual peers.

19 thoughts on “More on Teacher Pay.

  1. LaJane Galt June 25, 2009 at 11:25 am Reply

    Dr. Bitch is right on.

    You get what you pay for. It speaks to the value Americans place on education.

    I would also add that education is a 2-way street. Let’s not forget that students are there to learn. A school will only be as good as its students. If you don’t have functioning children you will have crap output. Many children are unsocialized and are therefore not qualified to be students (it is not the teachers job to make students, that would be mom & dad). There is more to being a student than just being young.

    • G.D. June 25, 2009 at 11:33 am Reply

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is the subject of our next book discussion, and specifically addresses children, education and socialization.

  2. quadmoniker June 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm Reply

    I completely agree with the assertion that teaching can be trained. After being trained to teach SAT prep, I can honestly run a (small) classroom. We practiced, over and over, asking students questions rather than telling them things, etc. I’m not saying I’m a great teaching. But I could learn about “engagement.” Other people can, too.

    I disagree that $40 k salaries only get average workers, though. You’re talking to jouranlists here, Dr. B!

    • universeexpanding June 26, 2009 at 9:51 am Reply

      On the contrary I think salary does affect the kind of candidate you get, and the outlay of effort they make. I believe it’s true for all the reasons that Dr. B listed, that would break down a well-intentioned and good teacher but also because I am a person who is very good at and enjoys classroom work who opted against it because of the money. I often say, if it paid more I would totally teach high school math. But it doesn’t. So I’m in an educational field, yes, but not in the classroom. Who knows maybe I could be doing more good there. I’m sure there are many others who feel this way.

      Sure ideally teachers should enjoy what they do, and find intrinsic benefit in it, but they need to eat too. If I’m trained and a professional I expect a certain amount of financial reward for my work, just like in any other profession. It’s harder to be assured of that in teaching. No matter how devoted you are, if you deal with enough shit you find yourself saying, “I don’t get paid enough for this.” And you adjust your efforts accordingly. Now if that’s someone who enjoys the job, imagine someone who went to teachers college because they didn’t know what to do after undergrad, or just couldn’t think of any other profession they were qualified for? I shudder to think.

  3. t.o.a n. June 25, 2009 at 1:08 pm Reply

    I don’t think that the issue of pay for teachers is as big an issue as teachers not being able to be fired when it comes to average and below average teachers and isn’t a child’s first teacher his parents? So, if that is the case then I would say that teaching is something that is natural as opposed to easy. Also, I don’t necessarily believe that paying someone $40k/year is enough to say that that person will be average, otherwise I would not have had the teachers that I did that inspired me.

  4. bitchphd June 25, 2009 at 9:05 pm Reply

    If you don’t have functioning children you will have crap output. Many children are unsocialized and are therefore not qualified to be students

    Nonsense. Part of teaching is teaching behavior as well as academics; after all, the behavior that’s expected in an academic setting isn’t “natural.” Having a high population of what’s called “at-risk” kids certainly tends overwhelmingly, in the present situation, to lead to poor educational outcomes; and serving such populations definitely requires lots of support besides academic education. But it’s quite possible to do it very well indeed.

    • LaJane Galt June 29, 2009 at 8:40 am Reply

      That’s the thing. How MUCH of teaching is teaching behavior? What kind of behavior should be taught in schools? I should qualify that TRADITIONAL schools.

      I think the blunt way I put it confused you. Kids have to be able to learn.

      I actually think a more holistic approach like HCZ makes sense for certain environments. That said, the socialization/family support element of HCZ enables the kids to come to school to learn. HCZ recognizes, “if you don’t have functioning children you will have crap output.”

      The thing is how many CZs are out in other places?

  5. kameelah June 26, 2009 at 3:07 pm Reply

    lovely blog.

    i am a 23 year old classroom teacher entering my third year of teaching/second year of compensated instruction. i teach at one of the more/most challenging schools in the bay area, receive an okay salary to take care of myself, and attended one of the best teacher education schools in the nation. teachers and professors put me on the law, MPP, and PhD track and when i decided to get a Ed.M&credential, many remarked that i was ‘wasting my talent pursuing a mediocre profession’ and that ‘i would not be paid enough for what i’d put in.’ basically, teaching is undervalued–salaries and societal attitudes towards teachers reflect such. i have even had students tell me ‘miss, you are too smart to be a teacher’ and there are many days that i struggle because of people in my ear.

    teaching is a profession like medicine and law, however, unlike other professions teaching is not treated with the same precision and care. you can become a teacher, at least in california, without a masters degree. you can receive an substitute credential by taking a test or emergency credentials through districts. you have never heard of a doctor taking the MCAT and becoming a substitute doctor, or a person with an interest in law receiving an emergency credential to practice law while taking night classes. i think the quality of teachers is a function of salary and the failure to truly professionalize the profession. there are far to many loopholes in the process to become a teacher which in my opinion invites uncommitted and poorly trained folks. i believe that in addition to poor salaries and lack of professionalization, teacher appreciation and support also waters down the teacher quality. if teachers are celebrated, along the lines of doctors and lawyers, you will attract a higher quality teacher (or maybe people seeking status). true, people should choose professions that fuel their passion, however, status concerns are an obvious factor. $40k will attract both good and bad teachers–committed folks will to eat top ramen twice a week and folks who don’t know what to do after college.

    like bitch phd, i disagree with the assertion that “If you don’t have functioning children you will have crap output. Many children are unsocialized and are therefore not qualified to be students.” this year i was the teacher/social worker/parent/therapist to about 45 kids you might call ‘unsocialized’-gang bangers, a teen mother, kids who are generally in a bad place. my job as a teacher is to cultivate an environment where students feel safe enough to develop the academic and emotional skills to be a learner.

    • Maggie June 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm Reply

      Kameelah–

      Your situation mirrors mine so much I had to chime in and add my thoughts. I am 22, and teach at a small public school in East Oakland. Similarly, I went through a teacher education program that I found very rigorous–but I also feel the need to continue my own education as much as possible.

      One central problem with teacher’s salaries as they are now is that it discourages them from continuing to receive professional qualifications, conduct professional research, etc. Even if I am willing to apply my enormously expensive education to work as a public school teacher in one of the lowest-paying districts in the Bay Area, I then have to pay for additional education and certification (somehow). I look forward to continuing to teach in East Oakland, but I am not sure how or when I will be able to afford get back to school to keep working at becoming a more reflective teacher.

      I know many teachers who could easily slip into fields with more “professional” wages, but are struggling to find the support to become “professional” teachers nonetheless.

      I have commonly heard it said that, as you observe, Oakland’s challenging situations and low salaries attract both the very best and very worst teachers–those who come to help despite the situation and those who couldn’t get hired anywhere else. I think there are many solutions needed, but higher salaries are a step in the right direction.

      In short, I found your post right on, and I too love this blog!

  6. t.o.a n. June 26, 2009 at 3:55 pm Reply

    I am having some trouble with a few thoughts that I have been having. Maybe someone will have the answers. And maybe this is not even the correct place to enquire, but …
    First, how do you measure a good teacher? Is the student a passive vessel that the teacher fills? What exactly is the point of a “good education”? Is it to get a job? Is it to get into college? Is it just to have a knowledgeable individual that can function in the world? Are the teachers to be judged on these outcomes from their students? Are there a set of universally measurable things that a person who has competed school should know?

    What about home schooling? I have read some amazing thing about children who are home schooled. Is this a legitimate alternative?

  7. mrw June 27, 2009 at 3:15 am Reply

    Hi. Here by way of Womanist Musings. I like your blog very much.

    To address the questions-

    What makes a good teacher? So many things! I do believe that teaching is a calling. That sounds corny, but, just like every person is not meant to be a doctor or an engineer, not everyone is meant to be a teacher. It is a profession which demands technical skill and heart. I have known many who had the right stuff in terms of their education and training. Those things get one in the proverbial door, but don’t allow one to stay.

    The purpose of education: Each level of education, ideally, prepares one for the next stage. I would hate to believe that a pre-school, elementary or even a middle school education prepares one for a job or college. Rather, I would hope that, in 12 years of schooling, we are preparing young people to read, write, think, and compute beyond a basic level, to get along with and work with others, and to contribute something positive to this world. And, we can throw it out there, right now, that a high school education, in its best form, prepares one for additional training, whether it be college or a trade. Nothing more.

    As far as home schooling: Again, it takes a special person to do it. Not every parent has the patience, skill and motivation to educate one’s own children. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly, but after a lot of soul-searching and profound consideration for what is in the best interest of the children. There are pros and cons, but, done correctly, kids can benefit immensely. The school where I teach has enrolled several students who were previously home schooled. It’s easier to do in grades 1-6, and, maybe 7 and 8. But, given the increasing curricular demands being placed on high schools to prepare students for college, I personally do not know of students who were home schooled through grade 12. It’s been done, but, I have no personal stories on which to draw.

  8. Winslowalrob June 27, 2009 at 10:47 am Reply

    I forgot to post up just how great your piece was BPD. You probably get that a lot, but it really helped chrystalize a lot of my random-ass thoughts into a tighter moral argument for why teaching isn’t just something that any putz can do.

  9. Anonymous Coward June 28, 2009 at 11:54 am Reply

    “And yes, if they are bright, ambitious, and creative enough to be able to command six-figure salaries in other professions, they are unlikely to stick around teaching for more than a couple years because (1) teaching well actually is really hard work; and (2) we do, as a society, measure status in large part by income and lifestyle, and few bright, ambitious people really are going to feel happy for long living and being treated “lower” than their intellectual peers.”

    Pretty sure that most of the people that command 6 figure salaries, work long hours and have to do hard work. But they don’t get 1 week for spring break, 2 weeks for x-mas, a few days off for thanksgiving, or ~3 months off during the summer. Even the cubicle warriors only get 2 weeks of vacation/personal days.

    Most people that command 6 figure salaries are also concerned that they might get fired for poor performance, or laid off.

    Where I’m from, comparatively lots of free time and unparalleled job security isn’t considered being treated poorly.

    All things considered, you’re hard pressed to find a cushier job…unless of course you teach @ university.

    • universeexpanding June 28, 2009 at 11:07 pm Reply

      Pretty sure that most of the people that command 6 figure salaries, work long hours and have to do hard work. But they don’t get 1 week for spring break, 2 weeks for x-mas, a few days off for thanksgiving, or ~3 months off during the summer. Even the cubicle warriors only get 2 weeks of vacation/personal days.

      …um.
      wow.
      you don’t know many teachers do you?
      And if those of us who work in education didn’t get that kind of leave, given the kind of stuff we are called upon to absorb on a daily, not to mention the huge amount of work that goes home with us, we would you batshit crazy.

      • Maggie June 29, 2009 at 8:46 am Reply

        agreed with universeexpanding–

        teachers spend much of that “vacation” time doing the work necessary for the school year to happen at all–planning, creating, developing curriculum and materials. At least the teachers I know…

  10. quadmoniker June 28, 2009 at 2:58 pm Reply

    AC: That’s one of the points of the post. These teachers can be fired and can be rewarded extra if they work hard. The school doesn’t just pay teachers more. It makes the employment structure look much more like the kinds of private jobs where people command those kinds of salaries. That’s the point.

  11. Ron June 28, 2009 at 9:03 pm Reply

    If you paid teachers more, what would happen to administrator pay? Just wondering…

    • K-man June 29, 2009 at 12:01 pm Reply

      From what I remember from the NYTimes article on Equity a few months back, the administrators would be paid $10,000-15,000 less.

      Anonymous Coward’s comment is interesting. All schoolchildren are exposed to teachers growing up so most of them are confident in their knowledge of the teaching profession and how much work goes into it. I think it’s important for those people to realize that these observations were done years ago by immature, inobservant versions of themselves. Doing an apples-to-apples comparison of an average teacher’s time off vs. an average cubicle jockey’s is just off-base.

  12. missincognegro June 29, 2009 at 3:32 am Reply

    Wow. It’s ignorance like that expressed by people such as AC which do nothing to move the conversation forward.

    In as far as administrator salaries: perhaps a significant raise in teacher salaries would prompt a re-evaluation and a re-assessment of the role of administrators.

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