As published in Commentary section in Dallas Morning News – May 20, 2016.
There is a billboard off Central Expressway that drives me crazy. It says, Want to Teach? When can you start? To understand why this is bothersome, consider if it said, Want to perform Surgery? When can you start? or Want to design buildings? When can you start?
The fact is, we look at those professions and know they take more than desire. Yet, society seems to think teaching is just a matter of heart. As a teacher, I don’t perform surgery or design buildings, but I am responsible for the most precious thing in people’s lives, their children, and people should want a skilled professional doing this job, too.
Still, people laud me for following my “calling” or tell me what a noble profession I have, but the emphasis is on the “noble” part over the professional part. In fact, I had to train for many hours, be mentored, and, even today, 20 years later, I must continue to study and develop my craft. Sure, I care deeply about all my students, and I could not be an effective teacher without doing so. But just as you want more from an architect than that he cared greatly, I have to have a set of skills to coherently deliver information to students and effectively develop their skills for the future. Calculus is not taught nor empathetically learned merely out of a love of math.
On the other end of the spectrum, teachers often get counseled by people who advocate a disengaged “business model” to education, or who tout the latest educational program for student success. What neither group considers is how much professional personalization is required for teaching, and often on the fly. Does the businessman’s “product” ever refuse to be sold because it just broke up with his girlfriend, is dealing with a family divorce, or is contemplating suicide? And how does the latest educational program address the kid who just never enjoys or gets writing, no matter how much you empower her? Teaching (as opposed to educational theory) involves a room of students, no two of whom are exactly alike, with a teacher recalculating hundreds of variables in the moment. Indeed, some of my first lines of lessons today originated as fourth or fifth efforts while refusing to give up on an “unteachable” child a couple of years ago.
So what’s the problem with creating a sainthood of teaching? Believe me, I appreciate the accolades, even the (incorrect) assumption that I am of superior virtue. But the negative implication behind pedagogical hagiography is that accolades become my remuneration, and that it would be improper to reward me in a more pecuniary way. The median salary for a teacher in Texas is $38,000 per year, very low compared to other professions that require at least a college degree, certification and specialized knowledge. “God bless you” and Starbuck’s cards are nice, but mortgage companies don’t ask for those on loan applications. And please don’t say we get summers off. Those days are gone for most teachers who, in the ever-shortening summer, must devote time to professional development and lesson planning that can’t be done in the regular 7:30-to-4:30 school day (plus grading at night and on weekends).
The results of requiring monetary sacrifice of the teaching profession are unfortunate: growing teacher shortages and high turnover. The Washington Post reported last fall that fewer college graduates want to be teachers, all the while 64 percent of voters consider the shrinking supply of teachers “very serious.” Sainthood isn’t enough of a draw these days.
I am lucky. As I near the end of my teaching career, I have been fortunate to work for private institutions that had the resources to help me to develop my skills and keep my class sizes small so that I could develop personal relationships that enhanced my teaching. But such advantages take, in a single word, money. Public school districts need funds to create the learning and working space conducive to student progress and to offer salaries that attract the best and brightest young professionals, rather than those with just an idyllic desire to share their wisdom with an imaginary room exclusively occupied by eager and receptive students.
Such funds cannot come without the support of taxpayers. I have seen citizens enthusiastically approve tax dollars to pay for everything from signature bridges to sports stadiums, always justified as an investment in the future. I ask those same taxpayers now, can there be any greater investment in our future than having the best, most enthusiastic, most professional teachers? That’s a return on investment that should make us all ask, “When can we start?”
Jim Wasserman is a retired teacher in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.