No One Forced Me to Become a Teacher

As a peruser of education-related blogs, I recently encountered a post written by a committed and passionate, retired educator who expressed concerns about the number of hours classroom teachers work and the insufficient compensation they receive. I cannot estimate the number of times I have heard or read such a lament, but my first exposure to it was when I was a student teacher in 1970. What follows is an expanded version of a hastily written response to my colleague’s post:

I often wonder why many of my colleagues seem so surprised by the discovery that one is unlikely to become rich in the teaching profession. In 1972, I knew I would be making less than $8000 per year, even with a master’s degree. I did not become a teacher out of avarice; rather, like many of my contemporaries, I went into teaching because it presented an opportunity to serve. “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

During my years in the classroom, my teacher’s salary required that my necessities not be too luxurious and that my luxuries not be too necessary. Being married to someone with an income did make my lifestyle more comfortable, but it meant necessities became more luxurious and luxuries became more necessary.

Twice, lifestyle wants became more important to me than teaching, not because I resented being unable, on a teacher’s salary, to fly off to Paris every year or buy the forty-foot yawl I wish I owned, but because my necessities were becoming more luxurious and I needed more money to maintain them. Because I knew the limitations of teacher compensation from the very beginning, I did not resent the fact that taxpayers were not willing to pay me a higher annual salary; instead, I chose to look for and obtain other positions that provided the possibility of greater income: positions in human resource management with a large regional retailer and at a University, and then positions as as an administrator in public education.

One of the reasons why the HR positions and administrative positions in Education paid more money than what I made as a teacher was that they were full-year positions as opposed to nine-month classroom positions. Leaving the classroom was good in terms of the family budget’s bottom line, but nothing in my twenty-five years out of the classroom was as fulfilling as my fifteen years in the classroom. My experiences confirmed that…

Building a fire in a child’s mind is more rewarding

than having a bigger bottom line in the family budget.

Despite this insight, I opted for better paying positions even though they provided less fulfillment, involved many more hours, and generated much more stress than I had endured as a classroom teacher.

The hours and stress associated with management positions is a secret that career teachers seldom discover. Yes, being the only adult in a room filled with youngsters does create appreciable stress, especially if you’re not very good at classroom management, but I suggest, based upon my non-scientific sample of one, that it would be extraordinarily rare for a teacher to experience the stress generated by having to supervise adults, coupled with the stress that comes from the constant, underlying fear of not meeting the expectations of a boss by whom you are held accountable on a daily basis, which is something I never experienced as a teacher.

I have heard many teachers bemoan the number of hours they work, sometimes comparing them with the number of hours worked by the average American (often reported as something less than forty hours per week), but professional positions that pay what many teachers wish they made involve working 60 to 80 hours per week every week of the year, including many nights and weekends, except for the week or two of the three or four weeks of vacation per year to which one is entitled.

I suspect that many teachers have never had a reason to consider the things that impact the amount of money earned by other professionals. With the exception of such things as billable hours accrued by lawyers, financial planners, and some other professionals, a professional is paid to do a job and is not compensated for time spent on the job; instead, professional compensation is dependent upon things like the number of adults supervised, the amount of capital or the size of a budget for which a person is responsible, the degree of independence allowed in fulfilling the job, the level of training and experience that is required, the possession of unique skills that may be required, and the supply and demand of qualified candidates.

Given these considerations, it should be understandable that teachers’ salaries will be appreciably less than those of many other professionals. Another significant limitation is related to the fact that when we enter our classrooms for the very first time, we have reached the organizational pinnacle of advancement in a classroom teacher’s career.

If making lots of money is why someone got into teaching, they were destined to be disappointed. It is likely that teachers’ wailing and gnashing of teeth is more about recognition than it is about remuneration. If a teacher is not qualified to do anything else, one is stuck, but that is on the teacher—nobody forced any of us to major in Education.

And although chatter at cocktail parties et al, and the public pronouncements of politicians and district superintendents, profess to respect us for the important work we do, they do not back up those claims when we turn our backs. We may be responsible for some degree of this disrespect because our results too often reflect our having the worst Knowing-Doing Gap of any profession. We tend to practice like we practiced when we started teaching, which means too many of us are ignoring what years of research says works in classrooms even when we know what those research findings are.

Another thing that may undermine others’ opinions of us is that when our students do not succeed, we often blame them, their parents, poverty, and low teacher salaries. My last positions in Education involved overseeing No Child Left Behind improvement planning, which involved working with faculty and administrators in over 800 schools across Pennsylvania, including charter schools in Philadelphia, so I can attest to the fact that there are schools where significantly disadvantaged students are doing well on state tests, while there are many more schools with exactly the same student demographics that are performing far below expectations.

The difference? Successful kids are taught by teachers who are well-trained and held accountable to apply what the research says works, and who actually believe their students can learn; unsuccessful kids appear to be taught by teachers who do not apply the research, and who tell anyone who will listen that you cannot expect kids with unsupportive parents to learn if they come from “those neighborhoods.”

I am unaware of any research that has established a direct relationship between increasing teacher compensation and student achievement, but there is research that has established a causative relationship between student achievement and teacher expectations. If there was no such relationship, we could save taxpayers a lot of money by giving up on poor kids and shutting down their schools.

Maybe the hardest thing for a dissatisfied teacher to acknowledge at the end of a career is that maybe, just maybe, he or she may have made the wrong choice of major in college and then failed to make the decision to leave the classroom when they realized the mistake.

A teacher can blame everyone else for how he or she feels at the end of a career, or they can acknowledge the truth: “No one forced me to become a teacher.”

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