No One Forced Me to Become a Teacher

During my occasional perusal of education-related blogs, I encountered a post written by a 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 the retired educator’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 when I began looking for my first teaching position, I knew I would be making less than $8000 per year, even with a master’s degree.

Salary had been irrelevant to my choice of a career: 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. 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, and found positions in human resource management with a large regional retailer and then at a University, and ultimately 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 classroom teacher was that they were full-year positions as opposed to nine-month positions. Leaving the classroom did have a positive impact on 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. Assessing the totality of my life’s work confirms for me that…

Building a fire in a child’s mind is more rewarding than having a bigger bottom line in the family budget.

This insight was known to me in the years after I left the classroom, but because of the necessities/luxuries balance I had accepted for myself, 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. While I can appreciate the number of hours and the level of stress that come with management and other professional positions, career teachers cannot unless they have experienced professional level responsibilities outside of the classroom.

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 classroom teacher to experience the stress level generated by having to supervise adults on a daily basis when coupled with the stress that comes from the constant need to meet the expectations of a boss, by whom you are held accountable on a daily basis: something I never experienced as a secondary-level teacher.

I have often encountered teachers bemoaning the number of hours they work, sometimes comparing them with the number of hours they claim are worked by the average American worker (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 two to four weeks of paid vacation per year to which mid-level professionals are 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. I have had such a reason because one of my HR responsibilities had been job classification, which is a fairly formulaic task of evaluating positions to determine whether the position is exempt from eligibility for overtime pay—the basic definition of “professional”—or non-exempt, the term HR types use to refer to hourly employees. A related responsibility I held was using regional salary surveys to assign salary ranges to specific positions.

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 hours spent on the job; instead, salaries for professional positions are 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 relationship of the organization’s success to the degree of independence required to do 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 (and the oft forgotten 37-week vs 52-week work year), 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 teachers enter their classrooms for the very first time, they are, at that moment, already at the organizational pinnacle of advancement in a classroom teacher’s career.

If making lots of money is why someone enters teaching, s/he is destined to be disappointed. It is likely that teachers’ wailing and gnashing of teeth about compensation is more about recognition than it is about remuneration.

Although chatter at cocktail parties et al in the presence of teachers, and the pronouncements of politicians and district superintendents for public consumption profess to respect teachers for the important work they do, what is said about teachers in their absence is often negative. We educators may be responsible for some degree of this two-faced disrespect because our results too often reflect our having the worst Knowing-Doing Gap of any profession.

We tend to practice—especially at the secondary level—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. There is much blame to be spread around for this reality.

First, blame lies with the collective incompetence of schools of education that use adjuncts and ivory tower academicians—again, especially for secondary level preparation—who are not experienced with the implementation of research-based best practices.

Second, blame lies with the incredible lack of instructional leadership provided by too many school and district administrators who are sometimes even more derelict in the understanding and implementation of best practices than are those who prepare teachers in schools of education.

Third, blame lies with too many teachers themselves. Denied training and support in the implementation with fidelity of best practices, too many teachers ignore the training and support they are sometimes provided. I saw this countless times in my work as a trainer, a manager, and as a change agent in my work as a consultant.

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 my working directly or indirectly with administrators in over 800 schools across Pennsylvania, including thirteen charter schools in Philadelphia. Based upon what I observed, I can attest to the fact that there are schools where significantly disadvantaged students are doing well on state tests; unfortunately, there are many more schools with exactly the same student demographics that are performing far below expectations. For whatever reasons, the public tends to hear more about the latter than the former.

The difference between student success and failure? Successful kids are taught by teachers who are well-trained and held accountable to apply what the research says works, and by teachers 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.”

Another unsettling reality for those educators who bemoan their economic circumstances is this: I am unaware of any research that has established a direct, causative relationship between increasing teacher compensation and increasing student achievement, but there is research that has established a causative relationship between student achievement and teacher expectations.

If there was no such relationship between expectations and achievement, we could save taxpayers a lot of money if we listened to the educators who say (as hundreds have said to me over the past 50 years), “you can’t expect us to teach these (disadvantaged) kids with all the baggage they bring to school.” If this claim is true, then why bother even trying to teach these kids? Let’s give up on them and shut down their schools.

The truth is that those teachers’ claim is not true, that the problem is not with kids’ baggage; the problem is with poorly trained and/or recalcitrant educators who are unable to accept the fact that all children can learn at the levels needed for them to succeed in life IF their teachers believe in them and IF those teachers are appropriately supported as they implement research-based best practices with fidelity.

Maybe the hardest thing for a dissatisfied teacher to acknowledge at the end of a career is that maybe, just maybe, s/he 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 s/he feels when looking back at the end of a career, or s/he can acknowledge the truth: “No one forced me to become a teacher.”

Note: I discovered a fourth reason why there continues to be a failure in the degree to which research-based best practices are implemented in America’s classrooms as I searched three, large public databases for an image of a teacher implementing a best practice. Of the hundreds of images of teachers in classrooms that I viewed, all showed teachers standing in the front of classrooms or in other positions that portrayed them as the repositories of the knowledge that has accrued to Western Civilization. In other words, the over one-thousand-year-old tradition of a teacher as a font—as the only source—of knowledge remains a pervasive paradigm in our culture, which works against what we know to be fact: students learn best what they discover for themselves, especially with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, and not by ingesting and regurgitating what they are told. It is for that reason that I have resorted to the use of a 30-year-old teacher’s “school picture” for this post’s featured image.

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One thought on “No One Forced Me to Become a Teacher

  1. I remember my brother Chris who had gone to Law School, was pretty much the top of the food chain and he decided to teach history and street law in a New Hampshire school district. Half way through his first semester he called home to talk to Dad and he was whining about how he was spending 8 hours in class and then working on papers till late at night every day. He said he refused to work on Saturdays which he took for himself but Sunday was pretty much spent all day preparing for the coming week. Our father wasn’t very helpful saying something to the effect of “Welcome to the working world.” Chris went on to be a great educator, starting up one school from scratch and becoming Principle of the largest School system in the state. Dover. I always have had so much respect for the great teachers. They make it look easy, but it’s not.

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