Fighting the High Cost of Low Teacher Respect

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: On May 1, Bonnie Bracey Sutton, ETCJ editor on policy issues, posted a link to Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari’s NY Times op-ed, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” (April 30), in the journal’s private listserv for possible discussion. On May 2, John Sener, ETCJ writer, posted a version of the following article in the discussion. -Editor]

I almost wish this article had been titled “The High Cost of Low Teacher Respect” because the issue is about more than just low salaries, as the actual article demonstrates. It is good to see teacher advocates fighting back directly with a “put your money where your mouth is” argument, though. You want results like Finland, South Korea, Singapore? Do what they do. Linda Darling-Hammond has been making a similar argument recently. Unfortunately, the argument presented in this article is weakened by a number of flaws:

  • The current prevailing ideology in American educational reform is that the “free market” (more accurately termed the “rigged market,” but that’s another conversation) can do things more efficiently. This article really doesn’t address that argument. In part, it’s because it’s so hard to counter a free market ideology that operates on the level of belief (as opposed to actual results), and it’s exceedingly hard to disprove a belief.
  • The numbers they come up with are apparently designed for a policymaker audience who lives in urban, high-cost areas. Making $68K for starters, $150K maximum would make teachers kings in most places. This argument will not fly in flyover country, which is most of the country.
  • The aggregate cost of their proposal is fabulously expensive. On the one hand, I sort of like that because it shows just how expensive it would be to take everyone’s education seriously. (Flipping the education and defense budgets might not even be enough.)  On the other hand, it also provides ammunition for those who would seek lower-cost solutions from the free market. Arguably, it also hurts some of those who are on the front lines of change — for example, public employees in various states (WI, OH, IN, etc.) who are getting financially bashed not because they make as much as “toll takers or bartenders” but because they are slightly better off than average (or being hurt less than average) in their locales.
  • Finland, South Korea, and Singapore are handpicked of course for their distinct attributes; they are also small, relatively heterogeneous countries, which raises the question of whether their success attributes could be replicated in other larger countries (China? India? Canada???).
  • Be careful what you wish for — the federal government does not provide direct subsidies for training, but it does provide indirect subsidies in the form of financial aid for students in teacher education programs. It’s not the same, but it’s not clear that more direct federal intervention is the best strategy either.
  • The argument reflects dichotomous thinking — understandable, but unfortunate. I’ve been thinking a fair amount recently about how people view the impending cyberization of education in either/or terms: if learning happens online, then teachers will disappear; if students have more authority over their learning, then they will rule; if uniform, rigorous standards are not applied to all students, then no meaningful standards are possible; etc. The article’s authors are clearly reacting to the decline in teacher pay and respect. But a dichotomous response always oversimplifies the issue, and the issue is more complex than that.

Having said all that, I don’t mind their approach; perhaps it even makes sense from a negotiating perspective. Based on my experience as a former ESL teacher, my sense is that at root the issue is cultural: Americans still haven’t learned to care about education to the same degree as they do in other countries. One of the best parts of that job was the high level of respect I received from my students (some of whom were South Korean and Singaporean), which I recollect as being in distinct contrast to how public school teachers were typically treated — and it hasn’t gotten better since then, apparently.

When we see signs that state and federal governments are willing to invest more in education and to treat the profession with more respect, then we’ll know that a cultural shift is underway. And I’m glad to see some fightback against the high cost of low teacher respect. But of course just raising teacher pay across the board isn’t going to do it…

5 Responses

  1. The care of teachers during the long entry into the profession could create bridges to excellence
    There are lots of potential trauma levels upon entry into teaching. How well prepared are teachers for actually working with children under the learning landscape in which they work? Some teachers have limited experience with real students. It is a steep learning curve with few sets of ideational scaffolding .In the he first three years we lose most teachers. They simply drop out. My concern is that with the recent teacher bashing that they won’t even enter the profession.

    What are the policy practices in the place where they teach? School board, local school and the philosophy of the principal? These things and how to leverage these various modifiers are not often taught.The politics of place are interesting.

    Teaching different populations of students with various levels of funding, no one has a way of knowing what the economics are in the school, in which they teach. There is a way for teachers to impact the spending with good administrative leadership. But, are the skills of the administrators level? I think if we emptied teacher science closets in some of the school systems in which I have taught we would find a lot of budget mistakes, even with the suppression of NCLB, iron filings , water tables and the like and glue on rock samples are still probably lurking in those closets. That is just one example. But.. food for thought. How does the local school budget get administered? With skill?
    Who evaluates principals? Do the people working with them get a chance to have their say? Or is that revolutionary?

    Is there a leadership group within the school system to aid and abet those who show promise , broadening engagement and supporting good teachers?

    Leadership in professional organizaitons and or supportive organizations is sometimes pushed aside. Marc Prensky and I share the idea that
    the groups have a lot of knowledge to share within the teaching profession. Groups? NSTA, NCTM, AAGE, National Geographic, NCSS.. add your favorite group here. I used to participate in most of the groups. NSTA was one in which I found courses, leaders who cared and once found myself on a plane to Seattle with the then current president of NSTA who had been denied leave for the conference just as I had. It made for a great conversation since I was only a teacher, I actually got to work with him in urban and multicultural projects.

    Many of the groups want to involve teachers in meaningful ways, but they need the people to be able to attend the conferences. I think Webinars are fine, but it is not the same as face to face in work and learning with the people who have a lot to share. PhD’s have helped along in wonderful ways.
    THey could as some have, offer a way up to their level by involving classroom teachers. I have had that kind of help often. But I live in areas of leadership. , and NASA have so much to offer but teachers have to invest time in these groups and many schoolboards and leadership initiatives are labeled from the geographic place of orgin and the
    work is personalized I think, but is carried out at a very low level. The Internet sort of gets rid of a layer of supervisors. Who can’t find resources and ideas, on the Internet. Well, the problem is what is the mindset of the school system.

    So many programs are relevant while we create
    projects on our own terms sometimes without the powerful resources that could create the love of the subject , and the possible entrance of teachers to a higher level of learning,

    I live in Washington DC. but worked in Arlington , Va. Parents esteemed my work in Va. In DC when I worked there briefly, as a teacher , all I wanted to do was to help and there was no way to be a part of being a change agent. The opportunities were there in Virginia.

    Teachers become inspired by more than salary. and fort a long time economic reality does not seem to be a problem. Well I worked two jobs.. One of them to support my teaching habit, to pay for things that I wanted for my classroom, and the technology I wanted. That was probably foolish. But I never thought of leaving the profession until I got to the ceiling levels where my longevity was a problem and I got $200 a year , for several years as a raise.

    The playing field is uneven. That’s why people go away.
    . Geographic change is a problem too. that is being able to transfer to another working place.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • Bonnie,

      Your comments remind me of why I avoided becoming a public school teacher and ended up teaching in a private proprietary language school instead. I felt at the time that I could not be effective in the prevailing conditions, and that hasn’t really changed. As you say, it doesn’t make sense to work in a place where you can’t be a change agent if that’s what you want to be…

  2. Respect for teachers is a cultural thing. Here in India we respect our teachers even after we pass out from school. When we get married we invite our teachers for the wedding to bless us. And when we get old and see our teachers on the streets we still say hi to them.

    • Savio,

      Thanks for your comment, which clearly shows the cultural dimension of respect for teachers. Greater cultural respect for teachers in the US would have some similarities and some differences which respect the culture — I don’t live in a place where I would ever see my teachers on the street, for example. However, I am sure that my son respects his teachers and will happily greet them whenever he sees them for a long time to come. There are huge variations in teacher respect within American culture. But the general consensus here seems to be that much more is needed…

  3. I spent a year in India on a Fulbright. I certainly got the idea of the sociocultural intelligence , some of us who teach and work in different countries or who live close to other countries and travel often understand the world differently.

    My learning experience in India was invaluable to me , and I learned the ways of respect , of teachers in India.

    At one time in the US, in the Black community teachers were also honored and were regarded as special. It is one of the reasons that the whole Michelle Rhee thing was so puzzling to the learning community. Other mothering was the way in which many children made it, because teachers helped when parents could not.

    My father mentored students all the time. I thought all teachers did it. But , in the culture of African Americans to be a teacher, used to be a badge of courage and honor.

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