Teachers Aren’t Volunteers or Missionaries
I know. Everyone is probably tired of hearing teachers complaining about how we’re not paid enough. Know how to make us stop? Pay us more. Seriously.
The ridiculous cliche that “teachers aren’t in it for the money; we’re in it for the kids,” is just another manipulation to guilt teachers into accepting less for doing more. I’ve got bills to pay and things to buy, and I work in order to earn a paycheck. It’s wonderful that I like my job and find fulfillment and satisfaction in it, but let me be very clear: I absolutely get up each morning and work all day for the money.
I’m just not in it for a lot of money. According to The Business Insider, “nationwide, the average public school teacher salary for the 2016–2017 school year was $59,850. While the nominal teacher salary has increased, when adjusted for inflation, average salary has dropped over time — about 1.6% lower than the $41,407 average in the 1999–2000 school year.” In a country where money often equates with respect, it’s not difficult to see why teachers are seen as second-class professionals.
We’re caught in a cycle that keeps us locked in a downward spiral. Teachers’ salaries stay flat, we suck it up, and it just becomes easier to tell us that budget cuts make it necessary to freeze our salaries for another year. Budgets are thin so we buy our own supplies, and it gets easier to tell us that we need to keep providing our own supplies like copy paper or paperback novels. We’ve gotten used to seeing teachers work an extra job, or two, so it becomes easier to just expect them to have to.
Teaching is hard work. It really is. Unfortunately, since the vast majority of the population went to school and had a front row seat to teaching, they think they know how it’s done. The truth is that until you have actually been a teacher, you have no clue. Good teachers just make it look easy. Good teachers have their game faces firmly in place so that we don’t lose our cool from all the stress. And the stress is considerable.
As a high school teacher, I work with around 150 kids each year. I’m responsible for teaching them a wide variety of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing skills. Many of my kids don’t read on their own. Some come from text-poor homes where there isn’t a book to be found. I have kids who made it all the way up to high school without developing the skills to write a complete sentence or read on a fifth grade level. I also have kids who read voraciously and make complex connections between texts and write beautiful and sophisticated essays with gorgeous syntax and diction. I have to find a way to teach them all. The eduspeak for this particular teacher-skill is “differentiating instruction,” and it’s complicated and exhausting.
I assess reading abilities and comment on essays. I determine the most immediate, most important, most impactful thing each individual student needs to work on in order to improve and move forward. I guess there are still teachers out there who lecture, distribute handouts, give multiple choice tests, run them through the Scan-Tron, record the grades, and go home when the last bell rings, but I don’t know any of them. All the teachers I know agonize over every element of every lesson, trying to figure out if this activity or that strategy will engage and meet the needs of each and every student. The teachers I know spend their lunch periods talking with one another about “their” kids and how they can better meet their needs. The teachers I know stay after school to tutor kids for free and offer online extra help sessions in the evenings so that students have every opportunity to be successful. Did I mention that it’s exhausting?
And that’s just the instructional part of the job. Add to that advisory duties in which we’re supposed to connect with our kids and help them set goals that are lofty yet realistic. Add to that supervisory duties in which we need to be on the front line of “see something, say something.” Add to that the expectations to ensure that your students succeed on standardized assessments so that your school can earn a good grade and so that you can be assessed as “highly effective” and earn an extra $1000 as a bonus. Add to that all the things that high school teachers are expected to do in order to make sure the kids have every opportunity to have a great four years: dress up for spirit week, chaperone the dances, attend the games and performances and cheer, and sponsor the clubs and honor societies.
If it sounds like I’m whining, then you’re misunderstanding. I’m just trying to make it clear that teachers work really, really hard in what is a really, really hard job. And yes, we work hard because we love our kids and often want more for them than they even know how to want for themselves. But we also work hard so that we can make a living, take care of our families, and build lives away from school that make us happy. I became a teacher because I love teaching kids to find meaning in stories and poems and plays and teaching kids how to find their voices through writing. But make no mistake, I’m also in it for the money, and there should be more of it.