NOT THE OLDEST PROFESSION, JUST THE MOST PUT-UPON
Imagine a profession in which its practitioner has no office, no phone, no computer, no assistant, no period during the workday to do job-related paperwork, no time to leave the worksite for lunch, and no permission to go to the restroom because heeding calls of nature at unauthorized times violates policy.
Lunch is a race to the solitary microwave in a tiny, windowless break room where dozens of others on the same schedule jockey for a seat. Choosing on site food service is quicker, but amounts to heart disease in a foam carton. The professional must be back at his workstation in twenty-six minutes. The end of the day is not really the end of work as preparation for the next shift must be completed at home. These are hours for which is there is no monetary compensation.
Sound appealing? Not to anyone with two college degrees and the chance to do something else for a living. But the above scenario typifies the workday for a public school teacher in America. Think that increasing teacher pay and eliminating accreditation obstacles will lure professionals from other fields to public schools? Advocates of merit pay and overhauling teacher certification do. And they couldnt be more wrong. I know because I tried it.
In 1997, this former corporate stiff entered graduate school to acquire a Master of Arts in Teaching. I chose teaching as a mid-life career because I believe that education is the great economic equalizer--my own life is proof of the power to improve ones station in life through learning. Reared in little material comfort, I endured countless parental lectures about how many more opportunities my mother and father might have had if they had been able to finish school instead of having to help support their families during the Depression.
It is not hyperbole to say that every advantage I enjoy today is because of our system of public education and those who labored in it. Decades after they taught me, I can remember the names of teachers who nurtured my curiosity and encouraged me to be all that I could be (with apologies to the U.S. Army). How many of us have an opportunity to touch the world in a similar fashion? By becoming a teacher, perhaps I could pay that debt forward by helping inner city kids realize their potential as I had been lucky enough to do.
But after I completed my student teaching, I was cured of the belief that an educated, enthusiastic adult with life experience could make a difference. And if one could, I was unwilling to spend my days in a place that makes nineteenth-century sweatshops seem like spas.
A summa cum laude
undergraduate in history and political science, I am plenty qualified to teach the subjects in which I am certified. The required education courses were pedagogical pabulum; designed more to test ones endurance than erudition, and which proved that those who cant teach, teach teachers. To be sure, the program was tedious and largely irrelevant, but hardly daunting enough to be an impediment to a career in the classroom.
But even after jumping through all the accreditation hoops of graduate school, I decided not to teach--and it had nothing to do with the pay. Today, I can say with certainty that money alone has no power to recruit, repel or retain teachers. And easing accreditation might lure a few folks to try their hand at teaching, but once they experience the reality, few will stay. I believe this not merely because of my time in the classroom, but because the only complaints I heard at the faculty lunch table were about working conditions.
A seasoned teacher told of a broken collarbone as a result of being pushed down the stairs by an angry student--and was counting the days until retirement. Another faculty member told about parental apathy so great, that in a middle school of 1,000 students, only one guardian showed up for Open House. There were lamentations that little was being done to rid the classroom of "emotionally-impaired" students who were being coached by their parents to misbehave so they could qualify for a disability check. And I was at a middle school assignment the day an ambulance pulled up to transport a profusely bleeding seventh grader whose box cutter-wielding classmate had missed his jugular by a fraction of an inch.
The attacker? His same-age girlfriend who was exacting revenge for his boasts of their sexual liaison the night before. But complaints about pay? Not a single one in the hundreds of hours I spent as a substitute and student teacher.
Anecdotes aside, if pay and certification were the real obstacles to quality classrooms, why do nearly half of todays education graduates, many of them expats from business and other arenas, never teach after completing a program that advertises its pay scale from the beginning?
Why are these new graduates not streaming into classrooms desperate for their services, if all that stands between them and a secure career is money and credentials? And how does low compensation explain the departure, after only a year or two, of those who actually accept a teaching position?
It is true that some members of teacher unions resist efforts at merit pay and more inclusive hiring policies because they fear the "outing" of the incompetent among them. And as in any profession, there are unqualified practitioners who should be driven from the ranks. But not all of us who question merit pay and other teacher reforms have ulterior motives.
And if merit pay guarantees better results, why are there no efforts to hold other professions hostage to the performance of those they tend? Will increasing a doctors compensation cause his patient to stop smoking or lose weight? Will higher fees for a criminal attorney increase the likelihood his client will go straight? How about incentivizing ministers to cut down on sin?
The merit pay/easy accreditation proposal is fallaciously founded on the notion that an unfettered "market" will attract better teachers which will, in turn, create better students. But like vouchers and other efforts at privatization, free market principles are not easily adapted to public education because students are not like sneakers or workers.
"Good" students cannot be chosen by the teacher/consumer as if they were a better, cheaper pair of shoes. "Bad" students cannot be fired by the teacher/boss as if they were unsatisfactory employees. Do we really believe that a poorly compensated teacher is all that prevents an underachieving student from becoming a National Merit Scholar?
Behind parents, teachers exert the single greatest influence on a childs life and their worth is incalculable. That fact alone provides plenty of justification for insisting on the highest quality instructors and paying them more. But creating a pool of better prepared students cannot be the sole province of teachers. Low student achievement is a national malaise caused by a number of factors, one of which is sometimes a less-than-qualified instructor, and none of which have anything to do with money.
Merit pay, like most of the other expensive bromides prescribed as the cure du jour for American schools, will not fix our educational ills because academic excellence cannot be bought with money--not in the pockets of teachers nor in the coffers of school systems. It must be purchased with the toil and sweat of students whose parents believe that diagramming a sentence is as important as perfecting a jump shot, and that anything worth having is not easy--and it never will be.
American slaves in the Civil War era understood that no ignorant man could be truly free from tyranny. They did not wait for literacy to be spoon fed to them, risking their very lives in learning to read. They refused to remain uneducated because they knew that knowledge is power--and it always will be.
Unlike educators before them, todays teachers are expected to single-handedly make up for the poor or absent parenting that is largely to blame for schoolchildren who do not value an education. Tweaking a seriously flawed system by instituting a few token reforms will not improve Americas schools.
Only a revolution in the way we regard education and its practioners will suffice, and that revolution must start with students who are then supported by their parents and society. Students will not reach their potential until they abandon the notion that school is designed to entertain them for a dozen odd years while they await the issuance of their diplomas. Parents will do their part to turn schools around when they insist that their children come to class with a respectful attitude toward those who seek to bring them out of ignorance.
And society? Well, we will have to do more than pay lip service to education in election years, and decide that lauding the science fair finalist is just as important as celebrating the winning football team. And rid our thinking of the absurd adage "those who cant, teach."
To paraphrase a bit of Eastern philosophy: when the students are ready, their teachers will appear--and they wont have their pockets turned inside out.