Here’s why we shouldn’t pay teachers less than any other professional worker:
- We lose many of the best candidates.
- We end up with some teachers who couldn’t find anything better.
- We force those teachers who are both willing to embrace the pay and who are great educators to accept exploitation as a condition of employment.
Teachers should be the absolute experts in their field. They should be the most intelligent, most innovative, most advanced subject matter experts available. When we pay teachers half the rate of comparable professionals, we’re asking for the second best. The trick is we justify this practice by claiming that teaching is a career we “shouldn’t get into for the money.” Well, why in the world not? Seriously. Think about it. There is no reason why teaching shouldn’t be a highly desirable profession with excellent pay and benefits. It’s one of the most important jobs in the world, yet it is not recognized as such financially. That line about how we should only teach because we love to teach is really just rhetorical propaganda designed to discourage anyone from asking for better pay. It allows critics to immediately disparage outspoken teachers as being people who “don’t care about the kids.” It’s a very clever and convenient PR campaign set up to paint rebels as greedy, thereby discrediting their message.
I see this angle played out quite often when the subject of teacher protests comes up. A few weeks ago, I reblogged a great post by Rutgers student activist, Steph Rivera, on her blog Teacher Under Construction. Rivera’s post is an extensive collection of 2012 U.S. Teacher Protests. A commenter on this post mentions this strategy of discrediting teacher protests, referring to it as “ed reform’s sub narrative that teachers are greedy and selfish and dont care about kids.” The commenter suggests that teachers should change the protest strategy to one that emphasizes the impact of negative working conditions on children. I agree with this to a certain extent, but what about the plain and simple negative impact on the teachers themselves? Why is this not a valid argument?
This is a debate that’s particularly prevalent in the contemporary discussion of adjunct professor working conditions. The argument is that we need to stress the negative effect of adjunct working conditions on the students in order to avoid looking like greedy teachers who care only about ourselves. Well, I get that. It does make sense. Especially from the standpoint that we must tailor different arguments for different audiences—something I always teach my students. But, hang on a second. We’ve got thousands of adjuncts out there working as full-time teachers and making $20,000 a year with no health insurance. And someone wants to suggest to me that it is greedy to ask for better working conditions?
Although public school teachers have slightly better working conditions than most adjuncts, the principle still remains. Sure, when a teacher is struggling to make mortgage payments and avoiding the doctor because of finances, it is absolutely going to bleed over into the classroom and affect students. No doubt about it. Even the best teachers with the greatest poker faces will be preoccupied in the classroom under those conditions. So my point is that this is bad for students, but most of all, it’s bad for teachers. My goodness. Why is it a sin to say that?
Pay Teachers More
Now, to tie this back to my opening point, when working conditions are such that teachers have to worry about their jobs and about paying their bills, why would anyone who is at the top of his or her field volunteer for that gig? It’s crazy. Poor pay either leads to teachers who couldn’t find anything else, or to teachers who are truly great at what they do and have chosen to accept the exploitation in order to keep doing it. Neither of these options is desirable. Take your pick: 1) a teacher who couldn’t get a better job, or 2) a teacher who is great and whose generosity and self-sacrifice is being taken advantage of.
All this talk is raging lately about education reform and how American students need to get more out of their education. Well, here’s a thought. Pay teachers like other comparable professionals. This would dramatically open the hiring pool to include the smartest and most innovative candidates. People who, in the past, never even considered teaching because of the meager pay would now be tempted to enter the profession. Beyond that, when teaching gets taken seriously as a viable profession (and is treated as such in terms of compensation), the career will attract the best educators, which will in turn raise the level of discourse in the classroom. Paying teachers poorly and then getting mad when students under-perform is a flawed self-fulfilling prophecy.