As a society, we don’t value teachers enough.
To my mind, a society should value work – in the sense of the rewards society delivers to people who do that work – based on two factors. First, how important is the function to society? Second, how hard is it to do? If you value teaching based on those factors, teachers should be much higher up on the list.
Obviously teaching is a critically important role in our society. We hand them our children, for crying out loud. We ask teachers to guide our children to learn the things they need to know to be happy and functioning adults. We ask them to take a key role in supervising their socialization and growth. And, in a broader sense we rely on the teaching profession to prepare a new generation to be useful and productive, one of the fundamental drivers of every economy throughout history.
Compare teaching to law, for example. Sure, it is important that we have lawyers. (Otherwise, I’d have had to become a professional golfer, and who knows how that would have turned out.)
We pay lawyers a lot of money. I know lawyers who make more than a million dollars a year, and I think the average after ten years is something like a couple of hundred thousand. Certainly, every lawyer I know makes more money than any teacher I know, and with more upside.
Sure, lawyers often don’t have a pension or other benefits like teachers, but some do. And, they make three times what a teacher makes, so it pretty well doesn’t matter.
Yes, yes, their job is important in at least some respects. If we didn’t have lawyers, where would our politicians come from? We’d have to elect real people. More seriously, our systems of dispute resolution and commercial dealings and human rights all rely heavily on the specialized skills of lawyers. Be as cynical as you like. They are still important for society’s efficient operation. Modern societies have to have complex rules in order to function properly. Someone has to understand those rules.
But does anyone really think that lawyers are more important to society than teachers? Surely not. At the end of the day, most lawyers deal primarily with money. Teachers are responsible for our children. OK, some lawyers (typically the ones paid the least, by the way) protect our rights, or protect the environment, etc., but ALL teachers are front and centre directing the lives of our kids.
I will agree that the job done by doctors is at least as important as the job done by teachers (and they are paid much more, I note). Setting doctors aside, there is a long list of professional and other roles that are rewarded more highly in our society than teaching. Rarely would we say that those roles have a higher intrinsic importance than teaching. Accountants? Architects? Engineers? Actuaries? I could go on. All important. But more than teachers? Really?
If we can agree that teaching our children is a role in society that we should value highly for its intrinsic importance, we still have to ask the second question: How hard is it, anyway?
To answer this properly, you have to ask not just how hard is it to teach, but how hard is it to teach well. People who argue that teachers should be happy with what they get tend to focus on the mediocre teachers, not the stars. I look at it from the other way around. First look at how hard it is to be a great teacher. Once you have set the value – in societal terms – of the great teachers, then you can look at how to value those who are less exceptional. (Or, maybe the job is so important that you figure out how to ensure that more people who choose teaching end up being really great at it.)
If you look at the really great teachers, you see that they have qualities that most of us don’t.
They can’t just understand their subject or subjects. Lots of people understand math. (Yes, really.) That’s not enough. You have to understand it both at an operational level – how it works – and at a conceptual level – the underlying structure and logic. Once you have that second level of understanding, you can communicate that understanding to others. A good mathematician is not necessarily a good math teacher.
That leads to a second quality, the ability to communicate. The average person finds it difficult to stand up before a room full of people even once in a while, for example to give a presentation. Teachers spend all day, every day, in front of a crowd (and not always a receptive crowd). They have to capture the imagination of a group of young people who have many natural distractions, and they have to communicate ideas and concepts that are not always intuitive for kids. For younger kids, they face short attention spans. For older kids, they face conflicting priorities and cynicism.
Teachers can only be great if they have natural empathy. Connection is critical, but not everyone can do that. Even those who can will usually have difficulty connecting with many different types of people, and in an environment where there are a lot of people seeking to connect with you at the same time. This is made more difficult by the fact that you are seeking to connect with people who are not your peers, and whose lives do not have a great deal in common with yours. A thirty-five year old teacher has to connect with a seven year old student, understand what that student is feeling, and reach his or her soul. Every parent knows how hard that can be, and parents are dealing with young people they know really well.
The best teachers are motivational. Part of that, to be sure, is empathy, and another part is communication skills. Those traits are still probably not enough. The very best teachers also believe in the potential of their students. They are inherently optimistic about life, and about people.
All of these mostly natural skills have to exist side by side within a personality that is willing to work hard, and able to put up with society’s limitations on both the resources available to them, and the freedom they are given to do the job as well as they can. Yes, teachers sometimes get some of the summer off. They also often work fifty hours a week during the school year. And, when they go into the classroom, they drag the shackles of bureaucracy and restrictions along with them. Most of those restrictions are necessary, to be sure, but they are still a straitjacket that makes it more difficult to be empathetic, motivational, and exciting for the students.
OK, not all teachers are the paragons I’m describing. But some are, and we would be happy if more reached that level. And maybe the fact that some are not as good at it as we would like is a chicken and egg issue. Maybe if we valued teachers more, we would get more good ones.
So why am I going on and on about the value of teachers? Well, part of it is that this subject originally came up in September, the time of year that teachers are suddenly more top of mind for parents. In that time period I certainly heard lots of talk from parents of younger kids (mine are adults) about whether their kids got the best teachers, or the ones they wanted, or the ones most in demand, etc.
But what actually set me off was that someone casually mentioned the name Dorothy Prosser. Dorothy Prosser was the epitome of what a teacher can be.
How many of us have felt the profound influence – whether positive or negative – of a teacher?
Certainly Dorothy Prosser, my high school English teacher, had a hand on the dial, helping to map the trajectory of my career and my life.
When I hit high school, I was already a reader, and I already liked to write stories. High school, and being a teenager, presented a blizzard of new challenges and influences, any of which could have pushed me in one direction, or the other (and sometimes did). That included dozens of teachers, some good, some bad.
But Dorothy Prosser was special because, to her, each of her students was an individual. Some needed remedial assistance. Some needed to cope with their insecurities. Some needed to be encouraged to spread their wings. And some, like me, needed to learn how to see what was possible.
“You can write a short story?” she told me. “Good, now write a poem, a sonnet. Write a play. Write a piece of non-fiction that will teach me something, and keep me interested at the same time.” Her constant theme – test your capabilities, see what you can do – pushed me to challenge myself. It was never whether my writing was better than the next student. It was always whether my writing was the best I could do.
The paradigm she presented led me to be a lawyer, a career in which my written work is likely my strong suit. And now, later in life, I’m once again becoming a writer. Along the way, I’ve been lucky enough to have many positive influences – my wonderful parents, my great kids, friends who tell it like it is – but one teacher, way back when, still touches my life every day.
Do you have a teacher like that, one who, even today, you can say had an enduring influence over your life? Many people do. Proof positive of the critical value we get from those who excel at teaching.
Society is not going to change the monetary value we place on the job of teachers any time soon. We have this view that teachers are a kind of specialized category of public servants, and should be slotted into a rewards category comparable to other public servants. Valuing their work more, at least in any tangible way, is about raising taxes, not about providing the best for our kids.
That’s wrong, certainly, but it is what it is, and it’s not going to change.
What we can do, as individuals, is remind ourselves of the dedication and contribution that teachers give to all of us, and particularly to our children. If we’re not going to pay them what they’re worth, at least we can give them the respect they deserve.
Yes, I know this was a bit of a rant, and for those of you have heard it before, over the years, I apologize for the repetition. Our attitude towards teachers sucks. That pisses me off. Simple as that.
– Jay Shepherd, November 25, 2016