Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Teacher on Teacher Salary

I hate to add fuel to the fire, and I really should be making better use of my time (like writing the next great American novel, or maybe just weed-eating the ditch) but is the current debate over teacher pay really that widespread? As a public school teacher I feel I'm living in a pedantic little bubble and that these issues are magnified for someone like me. But I'm starting to wonder if it's really as hot as it feels. When anything wells from the throats of the masses I have to wonder... of what current, national issue is this a symptom, and for this particular issue, does the hullabaloo over teacher pay have to do with the current debate over healthcare reform? Are public employees being more intensely scrutinized because the masses are amping up for when doctors are either state or federal boys and girls? Regardless, and I'm roughly quoting from an article from NPR, "most people feel the way in which we compensate educators is broken." Well, park our fractured schools right next to our broken healthcare system, right?

I've never understood the terror at nationalizing healthcare, and I guess I don't understand merit pay either, which is the subject of this NPR blurb. Merit pay is a system of teacher compensation in which salary is linked to student test performance. While we're at it, let's do the same thing with doctors: if a patient dies on the exam tale or, say, keels over from hypertension, we should pin the blame on his or her doctor. Nevermind the fact that the patient had a pre-existing condition due to diet, work-related stress, personal stress, a faulty spiritual philosophy, or whatever combination of obvious and/or subtle reasons for the deterioration of his or her health. I know it's starting to sound like I have poor teacher efficacy, but let's be honest- I see my students for just a little under four hours a week, and that's not even one on one time- it's time during which they're vying for my attention with ten, fifteen, twenty, sometimes closer to thirty other teenagers. Now, this isn't to say I don't think what I do makes a difference. I know it does. Just the other day I got a letter, yes, a letter, sent through the mail with postage, a heading, a date, a signature, all of that, from a former student. She elucidated upon her success (she is a junior at Baldwin-Wallace) and she pointed out that I positively affected her. This is a feel-good story, and indeed, her letter made me feel great. It put a new sparkle on the day and caused me to lift my head just a little higher. Gave me the extra fuel necessary to try and engage teenagers. I've never felt that I am not fairly and justly compensated for what I do, but I don't think paying me more is going to make me any better. Nor do I think linking my pay to student performance is going to change anything, as the Vandebilt study found. Let the Jets pay Braylon Edwards double and I'm sure he'll drop just as many passes as he did in Cleveland. This is going to sound ridiculously pious, but there is only one thing that can make education work. It's love, folks, and as those shaggy headed Brits declared, money can't buy it. Besides, Edwards is just inept. And yes, I think there is such an animal as the inept public educator, but what can we do with these folks? The statistics for an educator are not nearly as clear cut as those of a football player. People always ask me if I have good students this year. And this is before September is out. I want to reply, "I don't know... let's give them fifty years or so and we'll see." Sometimes, I imagine, a teacher's influence isn't felt for years, and sometimes a bad teacher can teach you even more about life -the stuff that really matters-than a good one. So how do you gauge teacher performance? How do you separate a good one from a bad one? Using what criteria?

There is , however, a group of educators that I feel is grossly under compensated for their combined intelligence, passion, wisdom and generosity, and that is college professors. I'm not necessarily talking about the tenured folks, because I honestly don't know what kind of salary or benefits they earn, but I'm talking about the garden variety associate professor or adjunct. These are, on a whole, highly qualified professionals who are paid peanuts for a job (the educating of undergraduates) that, as I see it, is largely thankless. It's not until you get into your particular college, or even graduate program that you bake you professors cookies or send them greeting cards. No, I imagine the life of an undergraduate adjunct professor is pretty bleak. I say this because I know some adjuncts, but also because my own undergraduate experience hasn't yet disappeared into old age. I'm thirty one and today found a gray hair in my beard, but I can still remember my Sociology 101 class, and College Algebra. I imagine teaching those classes was like teaching high school, which isn't a bad gig at all, but then again, I am well compensated for what I do. Any public school teacher who tells you otherwise is probably going to spend eternity pushing boulders uphill. I live comfortably off of my salary, and I can provide affordable health benefits for my family. I couldn't do it as an adjunct. Hell, Tri-C thinks so much of their adjuncts they make them pay just to park on college ground. I think adjuncts are such an amorphous group, however, that no leadership has arisen to help them demand adequate compensation. At the same time, most universities are home to the most outspoken defenders of social rights that this country has ever seen. Why haven't they encouraged the adjuncts to rise up and cast off their chains? Do these witches and wizards of higher education see adjunct life as a necessary rite of passage into the world of full-blown professorhood? Who knows. Maybe higher educational administrators are just the kind of blood-sucking fascists that kind-hearted tenured professors could never hope to unseat.

There are a lot of different ways to feel about the scrutiny directed at public school teachers. One way to look at it is that people are jealous of our profession. Another way to look at it is that people want the biggest bang for their buck. I can't fault anyone for either being jealous (I happen to think my job is very rewarding and that I am well paid, too), nor can I fault them for wanting to make sure teachers earn their pay. We're all familiar with the Carl Monday types of investigations: cue black and white footage of a public employee sleeping in his van during the workday. Chances are you're not going to find this kind of shirking in a public school. Unsupervised teenagers tend to be really, really noisy. And unfortunately I can't buy into a state test that reflects a teacher's level of effort... not a test that happens on one day out of the whole year, and is subject to so many factors besides teacher effort. I could get behind a year-long portfolio option. Let those who do not think teachers earn their pay sit down with one and have the curriculum explained, lesson by lesson, as it evolves throughout the year. Believe me, I know teachers: they like to talk. By the end of the first couple hours, that once angry taxpayer will be ready to agree to vote in a new levy just to get the teacher to shut up about "all the cool things we do." And besides, as a former collegue of mine once said, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." As a neophyte, I thought this betrayed poor teacher efficacy, and my philosophy was "just hold his head under until he opens his mouth." I still kind of feel this way about teaching, but at the end of the nine weeks, or semester, the students who get the most out of their education are the ones that put in the most effort. I admit, a teacher has to be held accountable for engaging his or her students, but the decision to be "on" or "off" is ultimately up to the student. The probably apocraphal story of a student approaching Picasso goes something like this: Student: "Master, teach me everything I need to know to become a great painter," to which Picasso replied, "I can't help you. You have to do all the work yourself," and shut the door in his face. I wonder what the average Joe Sixpack would say about a teacher like that? Henry David Thoureau felt that education should not be a mass process. Personally I don't anything should be a mass process, but as the population of the US skyrockets-for every two and a half million that die every year, just over four million are born-to just over three hundred million, a mass process it shall be. Time came out with a statistic in 2009 that over 40% of the four million annual US birth are to unwed mothers. And to quote Kurt Vonnegut, "I suppose they will all want dignity." In my mind there can be no dignity without an education. And currently our educational system is free and public. Folks, it's absolute madness to attempt to educate everyone and expect to have no problems. But I wouldn't trade our system for any other in the world. It is one of the things that makes me proud to be an American. I normally, to paraphrase John Gardner, feel like I have to go down into my basement in order to wave my flag, but not on this one. Free public education is a beautiful dream, and one worth striving for. I'm sure the way we fund schools has problems. I'm sure there are "bad teachers" out there, just like there are bad doctors, and bad lawyers, and bad grocery baggers. But for crying out loud, can't we dispense with all the finger-pointing and admit that it takes a village? Education isn't going to get any cheaper, either, I'm afraid. As each generation become more and more reliant on technology, the costs are just going to keep going up. Sure I'll be upset when Wyatt's school wants me to buy him a Kindle so he can read The Old Man and the Sea when I have a ten cent paperback of the stinking thing in my glove compartment, but the challenges of educating the "You Tube Generation" is whole different issue for another day. I already feel this rant has bloated up into "Mary Worth" status when I wanted to keep it "Far Side."

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