“My God, don’t say you want to be a teacher on your college application. You won’t get in anywhere.”
My high school college counselor responded to my teaching aspirations as though I had written on my Common App that I planned to devote my life to licking gum off New York City sidewalks (at the amount teachers are paid, maybe she expected that I would have to do that for nourishment). It seems as though there is a generalized lack of respect in society for most educating professionals. More than once I have felt my expression of a desire to teach suck all the air out of the room and be replaced with a sense of disappointment.
Now, if you ask people how they feel about teachers, they will regale you with specific stories from their own lives, many of which are inspiring. It seems, however, that when we address the subject of nonspecific “teachers,” we shift focus from personal experience to collective apathy or disdain. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”; this philosophy seems to have embedded itself firmly in our analysis.
Unfortunately, there are understandable reasons for this judgment founded in professional hierarchy. Teachers are paid less on average than other “professionals,” and it is often much easier to become a teacher than to enter other fields. This lowers the “status” of teachers, which in turn discourages many of the most qualified potential candidates. Also contributing to the negative attitude toward teaching is the relative lack of training teachers receive before being hired. In an ugly cycle, the “incompetent” reputation further alienates people who could otherwise be extraordinary teachers.
One entirely unfounded reason some people give for their negative impressions of teachers is that teachers have an easy job for which they are overpaid. (They have summers off! They only work until 3 p.m.! They’re just babysitting all day!)
First of all, as pointed out by Erik Kain in his 2011 Forbes article “Are Teachers Overpaid?”, if teachers were paid only $3 per student per hour of “babysitting,” they would be making an annual $108,000, which is, in most locations, about $20,000 or more per year than teachers make on average, including benefits. Not including benefits, the average classroom teacher makes between $50,000 and $55,000 annually.
Maybe more significantly, think about the salary teachers should be getting given the importance of their jobs. Teachers impart to their students the tools to survive in the world: academic skills, employment skills, and social skills. A good teacher can inspire creativity, a sense of justice, and an ability to think critically. No parent would want their child to lack in these areas, and so they try to find the best schools for their children. Unfortunately, there are not enough good schools and not enough well-trained teachers in all communities. As a result, students in school districts without enough money and who also cannot pay for additional help are—excuse my language—screwed.
Job difficulty is also seriously underestimated. Teachers are not “off the clock” at 3 p.m. when the students go home, nor do they spend two and a half months over the summer getting paid with your tax dollars to sit around and file their toenails. Summers and evenings are often filled with additional, unpaid training or school obligations. Grading and lesson-planning often happen on teachers’ own time. Standard day-to-day routines can be quickly shattered or added to.
So how should we fix an education system that often underprepares students and undervalues teachers? There is a push for increased reliance on testing and therefore on the ability of teachers to improve test results. The most recent development concerns evaluation of teacher preparation programs. Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed changes to these evaluations that would have them now include, among other criteria, teachers’ success in raising student test scores after leaving the teaching programs. It stands to reason that this would lead the programs to focus even more heavily on teaching teachers to teach to the test.
There is little argument that many preparation programs provide inadequate training for running a classroom. However, the past decade’s increased focus on using standardized test results to evaluate teachers (and students) is ill-advised.
There are many problems with a heavy reliance on evaluative testing that do not fit within the scope of this article. A major one, however, is what it does to the desirability of the teaching profession. Of course, in most fields of work there is some form of accountability system in place. For example, if you are an engineer and your bridge collapses, odds are you will be out of work, and there are safety regulations anyway to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen. However, the idea of national standards for education, at least as we are implementing them, does little to ensure quality teaching and much more to stifle teachers’ ability to teach important life long skills in favor of forcing them to teach test-taking skills and test-taking skills only.
Anecdotally, I know several teachers who say that these shifts have undermined their ability to actually teach without fear. Facebook status updates such as “Test-taking season rolling around! Time to stop teaching and start putting everyone to sleep!” are not uncommon. One new teacher I know explained to me that while she would like to have her students read books, she has to allocate all their time for reading to learning to read the types of passages that are so common on the tests. The passages have specific tricks and formulas on which the students could not necessarily pick up by just being avid readers.
This type of environment is not conducive to attracting better teachers, many of whom might be put off by the constant Big Brother-esque testing and evaluation. It exacerbates the serious flaws in the teacher evaluation process. Low student test scores can be a result of factors that even the best teachers cannot always overcome, most notably widespread poverty and other situations outside of the school building. Though evaluating based on test score improvement mitigates this problem some, it still does not provide a fair assessment.
Imagine if we graded all surgeons based exclusively on the mortality rates of their surgeries. Look! All of the orthopedic surgeons must be so much more talented than the cardiovascular surgeons! My point is, varied educational dynamics across schools, counties, and whole regions—not to mention within classrooms—can create an apples and oranges effect that makes these types of teacher evaluations flawed, and ultimately discouraging to work under.
Moreover, the emphasis on testing seems to undermine any original teaching prowess a person might have. From what I have experienced, teachers are good teachers when they are passionate about the subject or subjects they teach. Nobody is passionate about excerpted reading passages; not teachers and definitely not students. Needing to spend a lot of valuable class time on educational force-feeding is a quick way to persuade creative, energetic, intelligent people to run as fast as they can to another profession.
What should we do about all of this as a society? Like so many other political issues, education policy is a mess of economics, interest group influence, political leveraging, bureaucracy, and a whole lot of ignorance. Improving teacher training and raising the pay of educators would be a good practical place to start and would attract more highly skilled individuals to the profession. Allowing teachers to use more creativity in teaching would attract more creative people, and having more skilled and more creative teachers is one of the best things we can do for this country. Maybe from there, the attitude shift will come.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.