Teachers should surrender to the “keep the customer happy” movement. Many people think teaching is a “calling” and teachers should be satisfied with the “nobility” of the job. They shouldn’t complain about low pay, long hours, poor support, and worst of all: lack of respect.
Most movies and documentaries about education spotlight some person who sacrifices everything for their students. Think Dangerous Minds and Looking for Superman. Imagine if we had the same expectations of doctors, lawyers, or politicians. Every physician would have to be a member of Doctors without Borders and every government official would work for free. Whether or not educators should have a calling, they certainly don’t get respect from society in general.
Yes, pay is an issue since legislatures choose education as a primary target to trim the budget to accommodate another round of new tax cuts. But that’s not what drove teachers to the picket line. Teachers are normally a “don’t rock the boat” docile species. But when they see their students hurt by lack of materials, and they see many talented teachers leaving the profession, they just can’t take any more. Working conditions, more than any other factor, drive people to leave any job. Teachers are no different. And respect, or lack thereof, is a huge issue for teachers. We are exhausted by incessant attacks from people who hate public education, are ignorant of its problems, and dismissive of what it takes to be a good teacher.
Once, a school board member told me he didn’t understand why we teachers complained about pay all of the time. He said he could make $17,000 during summer vacation. In 1978, the year of this conversation, my base salary was $8,000. I pointed out to him that he could make that kind of money as a property manager. But in my profession, that was impossible. Teachers have to work outside of education in the summer. Furthermore, the state required me to spend part of my summers going to college and upgrading my skills. They did not reimburse me for this expense.
As a society, we pay lip service to the value of education. We tell children and adults that education is the key to success and the route out of poverty. But when it comes to showing what we value by putting money into the equation, we fail miserably. We’d rather buy NFL starter jackets for $150 than pay an extra $50 in school taxes every year. The evidence is overwhelming that the preschool years are the most important in terms of long term educational success. In European countries, preschool teachers must have a college degree and are paid as much as other teachers. In America, anyone can work in or start a preschool, and most preschool teachers earn minimum wage at best.
The city of St. Louis spent 280 million dollars to build a stadium to lure the Los Angeles Rams to move to their hometown. Now, the Rams have moved back to Los Angeles before the St Louis stadium is even paid off. This sends the wrong message to everyone. What do politicians really value? What are taxpayers willing to pay for?
Yes, we teachers bring legitimate criticism upon ourselves. Sometimes, we misspell notes, exhibit dumb classroom behavior, or adopt educational fads based on little research. But following the same path we have been on for decades is not the solution to getting more and better teachers. There are more ex-teachers than in any other profession. Over half of all teachers quit within the first five years. In a society that judges people by the size of their paycheck, we get what we pay for.