Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: How to keep good teachers in the classroom

Oct. 5 was World Teachers’ Day, a more than 20-year tradition to commemorate teachers worldwide. Its aim is to mobilize support for teachers and to ensure that the needs of future generations will continue to be met by teachers.

Teaching has been around as long as there has been a desire and need for information, explanation and exploration. From the quest to create fire to understanding the heavens, learning has been an intrinsic part of evolution. Knowledge saved lives, provided food and shelter and, over time, fostered innovation and improvements. Knowledge and skill were regarded as the ultimate valuable possessions.

Teachers were typically passionate, wise and skillful, and possessed a keen ability — and desire — to impart those gifts. Pupils regarded learning opportunities as a privilege, embracing it as a personal need. Great teachers still embody these characteristics. And their students — those who desire knowledge — continue to persevere.

Behind any person of achievement is a teacher who somewhere along the way made a difference. Yet, for all their impact, teachers today are not held in high esteem. They are certainly not revered. In fact, China is the only country where teachers are regarded with the same respect and deference as physicians. In America, the jury is out.

What happened?

In their New York Times article, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari note that when military actions are not successful, the soldiers aren’t blamed. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits! That’s why we didn’t do well in Afghanistan.” If the results aren’t adequate, it’s the planners — the generals, the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff — that must answer. No one considers blaming the people fighting every day in the trenches for a modicum of pay and far less recognition.

Yet this very scenario seems to have evolved within education. Kids can’t read and are failing? Blame the teachers. Test scores too low? Blame the teachers. Kids misbehave? Yep, blame the teachers.

The military is far from perfect, and war is probably the worst analogy to learning, but how is it that they grasp a concept that the education world doesn’t? Eggers says that when ground forces don’t achieve, the focus goes to providing more support. Soldiers get more sophisticated tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, incentives are offered. Why? Because we can’t afford to lose a war.

But we are losing in the classroom.

Compared to teachers over the globe, American teachers are very fortunate. We have classrooms and desks and technology. For the most part, we have the sophisticated tools and materials to assist us, and we have our passion and knowledge.

So why the casualties? Like the battlefield, the classroom responds to numerous variables.

▪ There is the ever-changing educational mind-set. Test prep and test outcomes have far more clout than teaching rich and relevant information.

▪ There are the parents. Some are involved partners, lending professional, physical or financial support, while others think schools are responsible for raising their children and ensuring their prosperity.

▪ There are the students, many of whom no longer see education as purposeful.

▪ And there are the educators. Many are mesmerizing and possess a magical gift of awakening young minds, but some are disillusioned and need to move on.

When you put all the variables in perspective, you begin to understand the profession of teaching. Not so different from the foot soldier or the surgeon who gives everything, every day in an attempt to try and win the battle for peace, life or learning.

Compensation vs. Work

When “teaching hours” are quantified, one may argue that teachers’ salaries are adequate for the hours they work. But I can attest that if anyone ever quantified the hours that I, and many of my colleagues, submit to create and maintain cutting-edge instruction, we would be making less than minimum wage and we’d be better off flipping burgers.

Don’t get me wrong, teaching (and nursing) are the two most rewarding professions I have known. Both demand high accountability, stamina, resourcefulness, a deep knowledge base, empathy and wisdom. So I question, Why was I faced with nearly a 60% pay cut when I left nursing for teaching? Sure, as a nurse you could say I was “saving lives,” but as an educator, am I doing anything different? I am helping to ensure lives.

Teaching is relentless and tireless work, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., day in day out, for nine months straight. Winter and spring vacation simply allows us to come up for air. Summer vacation? For those who can afford a three-month lapse in salary, sure. But it is unpaid time off. How many of you could live without a paycheck for three months?

As such, most teachers have to work additional jobs to make ends meet. On average, teachers make less than professionals in occupations that require similar levels of education. The average starting salary of a teacher is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $70,000. Bottom line, many great teachers leave the profession because they’re mowed down by the long hours and inadequate salary.

There have been numerous debates and research studies on the equity of teacher salaries. Whether it’s an elementary school educator or a university professor — wherever you look you see the chasm. In his The Atlantic article “Are teachers paid too much? How 4 studies answer 1 big question,” Jordan Weisman shares the 2011 findings of four major studies about teacher pay. He reveals how the interpretation of data (teacher IQ/SAT score, hours worked, geographics, subject taught, etc.) can lead to the belief that American public school teachers are both overpaid and underpaid. But it can’t be both. The authors conclude that it comes down to how you view the real hours vs. wages compared to professionals with similar educational levels.

Some of these studies and other ideological misinterpretations — like “Assessing the compensation of public-school teachers” by Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine — continue to rile the education world. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s article, “Teacher Pay Study Asks the Wrong Question, Ignores Facts, Insults Teachers,” criticizes these publications. Instead of asking whether teachers are overpaid, he says the focus should have asked what it would take to recruit and retain highly effective teachers. Surveys show that many talented and committed young people are reluctant to enter teaching as a lifelong profession because they think it is low paying and lacking prestige.

A McKinsey & Co. study compared the U.S. to other countries and found that America’s average current teacher salaries were far too low to attract and retain top talent and have not kept pace with other fields. In 1970, beginning New York City lawyers earned $2,000 more than first-year teachers. Today, a starting lawyer there can earn three or four times as much as a beginning teacher.

Restructure

You can’t fix a system until you review and repair all the parts of that system. And like any major corporate or government organization, the educational system has its own embedded issues.

▪ Inequities. There are huge income and workload inequalities within education. There are often administrators and non-classroom teachers who earn six figures while some teachers and substitutes earn wages below the poverty line. Accountability fears often create redundancy of administrator positions, while classrooms face a perpetual shortage of good teachers and resources.

▪ Parents and Families. American parents and students need to realize that they are responsible for their child’s/their own education (and mind-set). They need to foster the idea that “it’s your job to learn; it’s your teacher’s role to help you get there.”

There have been many times that I have been told by a parent that it is my fault that their child is failing. In a perfect world, children need to come to school ready to learn: well-rested, well-fed and well-clothed. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Yet the village has come to be known as the school. It is time for all parents to become active partners. We can’t do it alone.

▪ Pay systems. With the whole ruckus of merit-based pay, the only way to make a merit pay platform fair is to ensure all teachers have and teach an equal number of academic, non-academic, ESOL and IEP students in their classes. That way teachers start out with the same product and students can be measured on their gains.

▪ Shortage of good teachers. Public schools typically hire based on certifications and credentials rather than ability and passion. This recruitment process has to change. Teaching should not be something you do because you can’t do anything else.

By the end of this decade, more than half of America’s 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire. This demographic shift presents an opportunity for the educational system to modernize the teaching profession and expand the talent pool. But doing so will require seismic change in the way we recruit, train, support, evaluate and compensate teachers.

Incentivize

World-class education costs money. Yet we waste so much on things like testing — test prep materials and texts, test makers and test readers. None of this money goes toward the promotion of innovative or relevant learning.

Money is not the reason that people enter teaching. But it is a reason why some talented people avoid teaching — or quit the profession when starting a family or buying a home. Other high-performing nations recruit teachers from the top third of college graduates. That must be our goal as well, and compensation is one critical factor. To encourage more top-caliber students to choose teaching, the salary needs to be more attractive with starting salaries more in the range of $60,000 and potential earnings of as much as $150,000.

Duncan says that people will ask how we will find the money to support these necessary changes. The answer lies in the way we pay to keep a thriving military presence; in the way we pay for growing interstate highway systems; in the way we stabilized our failing banks; or how we sent Americans to the moon and built the ISS. We made it happen because it was important. We found a way.

Stabilize

Every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating. Especially to the students.

Who will replace those nearly 3.2 million public school teachers? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession? We can’t fix every school, but if we want to win the battle, we need to attract and retain good teachers.

When you look at how teachers are treated in the countries that perform best on standardized tests (like Finland, Singapore and South Korea), you see that they have an entirely different approach to the profession. The McKinsey study found that these governments recruit top graduates to the profession. We don’t. In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. We don’t. In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250% of what we do.

In Finland, teachers are accorded tremendous respect. It’s a profession many people aspire to, and entrance to training programs is competitive, with only a minority of applicants accepted. Teachers in the public schools have a lot of latitude to decide how best to teach things using a common curriculum, and are given time as part of their workday to prepare lessons. In contrast most U.S. teachers have limited planning periods, have to work through lunch, and due to the priority of high stakes test preparation, aren’t given much control over how they teach. 

Most importantly, these cultures trust their teachers. They are seen as the solution, not the problem. When improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is very low.

In the words of Duncan, “the debates in Washington should be about how to judiciously invest in education: how to keep good teachers in classrooms. And despite budgets — how to make teaching a more attractive career and elevate the profession. Even in a time of fiscal austerity, education is more than just an expense, it is an investment in the future.”

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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