Crisis in Respect

Demand for teachers' skills grows, but...

 

Now to money.

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Although people don't choose teaching as a career to become wealthy, money is the means the American culture employs to convey value. Legislators who clearly understand the value of money and argue that they need to offer high salaries and good benefits to attract the best of the best to run our state do not apply the same logic to attracting teachers.

The undeniable message?

 

Almost daily, I see some news report about the crisis in education. As a 16-year Tennessee public school teacher, I'm well aware that public education is in crisis. In fact, as a teacher who is now actively pursuing a career in a new field, I wasn't surprised by a recent article in the Nashville Tennessean headlined, "Teachers find their skills in high demand." The high attrition rate among educators leaves many jobs open.

This time the culprit was money. The article implied that most teachers leave their classrooms in search of higher salaries; however, money is only one facet of a multi-layered problem in the profession. College students choosing education as a major have realistic salary expectations; beginning teachers do not have a realistic view of how little their work in the classroom is actually valued.

A lack of appreciation for excellence among teachers is evident in hiring practices. The school at which I teach dismissed an excellent social studies teacher. Her students passed the AP exam; she held her classes to a high standard of performance. Unfortunately, the administration decided that our school needed a baseball coach more than an outstanding history teacher. That type of hiring definitely devalues academics. Any teacher naive enough to enter the field thinking that he or she was being hired to mold the minds of tomorrow's leaders receives a huge shock after witnessing that a few times.

Next, teachers' supervisors are not promoted from among our ranks. To become an administrator, one need not have practical knowledge of teaching; one need only have the "right" degree. Teachers who care deeply about their own professional growth and their students' achievement soon reach a plateau. For example, I have designed new curricula, worked on several professional committees, for no additional pay, and with no hope of job advancement. I did it for my own growth and the good of my students. 

I have reached the final peak in my career. To continue to grow, I must either buy a degree or change careers. Many of my colleagues have these degrees. They have all told me that they have had no effect on their teaching. (How could they? Many of these degree programs include going to class once a month.) When asked why they paid so much for so worthless a degree, the unanimous answer has been, "To increase my retirement pay." The most an ambitious teacher might hope for is to become department head, but, while this varies by district, in my school, the position comes with no additional pay and no power.

Now to money. I knew exactly what to expect as my beginning salary when I went into teaching. I did not know how much my supervisors made. The gap between these salaries is obscene. The director of schools in Sevier County earned $109,237 last year; the average principal in Sevier County earned $68,997.96—all while the average teacher earned $38,963.71, according to TEA statistics reported on March 9. My students are among the highest performing in the state on standardized tests. Do I get paid more? No. Will I get a promotion? No. There's no position to go to. If I were in business, and my sector were the highest performing, would I get a bonus? Yes. Would I be in line for a promotion? Yes.

Although people don't choose teaching as a career to become wealthy, money is the means the American culture employs to convey value. Legislators who clearly understand the value of money and argue that they need to offer high salaries and good benefits to attract the best of the best to run our state do not apply the same logic to attracting teachers. The undeniable message? They don't value teachers. Are low salaries the culprit behind the shortage? No, the culprit is what these low salaries represent: a lack of respect.

Teachers are not treated like professionals, and no cure for our ills is in sight. That's why teachers are leaving the field. So while teachers will find their skills in high demand as more veteran teachers leave the field, I doubt that they'll find their skills highly valued any time soon. The word "crisis" is frequently bandied about, but no one really believes it. If anyone did, the first most logical step would be to attract committed, qualified professionals. To do that, legislators, administrators, and the public at large must recognize teachers as committed, qualified professionals. That won't happen until a real crisis occurs. 

If you have chosen to become a teacher, you know teaching is a crucial job for our society. If you want others to realize that too, remember this: Diamonds have no intrinsic worth; their value is determined by artificially created scarcity. While you're getting your teaching credentials, prepare for another career, too. Put off teaching for a few years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2002 that the United States would need 724,000 new teachers before 2012. If graduating teachers put off entering the education job market for a few years, creating that crisis everyone talks about, much needed change might begin

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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