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By: Eva Carafa
What does the fight over Creationism, the ongoing skirmishes in Class Warfare, and Rush Limbaugh's rants against Sandra Fluke and the GOP War on Women have to do with teachers, who find themselves fighting for their professional lives? Over the next few weeks, I'll take a look at all these societal forces and draw a line between Genesis, women's work, the abandonment of support by the wealthy for public schools, to the current political firestorm of anti-teacher sentiment.
I bet teachers hear all the time that they are doing God's work by preparing the next generation for the future. Cultivating young minds. In their chalk-dust-covered hands, they hold the future, nay, the very existence, of America!
But do we really mean it? Or is our gushing merely a stream of platitudes, a verbal pat-on-the-head, a way of distracting the listener from the fact that we pay them low wages, constantly attack their professional fitness and secretly think they're overpaid for the work they perform? On the face of it, teaching, which requires at least a Bachelor's Degree, a period of student teaching, and state certification, should be considered a highly desirable, highly prestigious undertaking.
So why isn't it?
Professionals with comparable certification requirements are lawyers, doctors, Professional Engineers (PE) or Certified Public Accountant (CPA) (although many employees work as an “accountant” or “engineer” without a license, only a CPA or PE can perform certain tasks). But most jobs don't require a degree, at least by law. A nerdy guy with lots of computer skills can work as a computer programmer if he finds an employer willing to hire him without one. And he won't need a license.
But are teachers widely regarded as being in the same league as their professional peers? Richard M. Ingersoll and David Perda wrote in, "The Status of Teaching as a Profession" that professionals are those workers who have 1. a high degree of control over their work environments; 2.high prestige; and 3. relatively high compensation compared to nonprofessionals. Do teachers make the cut?
Teachers traditionally scored high when it came to having control over their work environments. They had, after all, their own classrooms, and within those four walls, they were The Law. Trouble came from the bottom up (unruly students) rather than top down (principals and school boards). How they taught was their business. Nowadays, though, curriculum is determined at the state level and a teacher who diverges from its mandates will quickly find herself out of a job. Individual teachers have lost a great deal of they control they once had.
On the issue of pay, too, the sad answer is no. Teachers have nowhere near the unlimited earning potential of doctors, lawyers, or scientists. The average salary for full-time public school teachers in 2010-11 (nationwide) was $56,069 in current dollars. That average was only 3% higher than the 1990-91 average salary, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Not exactly a fortune, is it? And now teachers are being asked to take even less compensation for the same work.
But teaching is considered a high-status position, such that teachers are accorded, if not riches, then respect? As it turns out, not so much. Despite their training they are, according to Ingersoll and Perda, accorded only mid-level status relative to the more male dominated professions such as medicine, law, scientists, and engineers. In terms of status, teachers barely squeak by closely-related, predominately female professions like librarians/social workers on the status scale. All three barely rate higher than non-professionals like funeral directors, secretaries, and workers employed in the trades.
But what about the platitudes, you ask? The head pat? We'd pay you more if only we could. Honest! We turn our pockets inside out to prove there's no more to offer. Doesn't that more than make up for the uncompensated time they put in and the ever decreasing amount of control they are given in the classroom?
It might, if we meant it, but more often than not, the same person who tells a teacher they are doing God's work in one breath will also question why teachers should be paid more for what is, in many people's minds, a “part-time” job. They get summers off, don't they? And all those holidays? What do these women want, anyway? A teacher who explains about the number of uncompensated hours in a day, the grading and planning that gets done on their own time, the numbers of hours they are called upon to perform non-teaching tasks, like talking to kids about their problems at home, is “bitching.” Yet a lawyer bills his client when he makes a 10-minute call on its behalf.
And how does that make teachers feel? I can't speak for them, but I can share some personal experience. When I graduated law school, people listened when I spoke. I was 25, and didn't know much, but my job title afforded me respect beyond my experience. I didn't get many pats on the head, but I heard “Yes, Ma'am!” every single day. I felt important, and it felt good.
Fast forward to staying home to care for my small children. When people learned I had given up my career for awhile, they would earnestly say “Caring for your children is the most important job in the world!” Did you catch it? It's the same verbal head-pat teachers get. It felt good, for awhile, until I noticed that when I spoke as a stay-at-home mom, I was routinely ignored. I fumed, and my sense of self-worth plummeted.
In Finland and South Korea, the two highest performing school systems internationally, teachers are revered.(Read about the difference between the US 's attitude toward teachers, on the one hand, and those of Finland and South Korea, on the other, here .) In both the US and the UK, much hand-wringing over the state of education has led to studies that recommend, first and foremost, that teachers be accorded higher status as professionals. See here for the US and here for UK.
But before we can fix what's wrong, we need to understand the attitudes that got us here, and why, in the current political climate, it will be hard to change our ways.
Next week, in Part 2, we'll take a look at why teaching is considered a low-status profession, and why teachers are yet another front in the War on Women.