From the blog All Things Education
by Rachel Levy
As some of you know, I am starting to look for, ahem, a job, including positions that would put me back in the classroom. The position of “unpaid writer” isn’t exactly putting food on the table and I’m starting to feel antsy writing so much about education without actually doing much about education. Reading over and updating my teaching resume, I am reminded of former students, colleagues, schools, and yes, curriculum. I am reminded of how much I enjoy teaching, for teaching itself but also for the content I got to ponder. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and went to an elite college. I’m “the type” many education reformers talk of attracting to teaching and, initially, attracted I was, but given what teaching has become in many cases, I am somewhat reluctant to go back.
The first reason is the working conditions. While I agree teachers are underpaid and I appreciate Secretary Duncan’s strident acknowledgement of this, I would do the work at the current salaries if the working conditions made the job more manageable: if I knew classes would be reasonably and appropriately sized; if I were given adequate time for planning, development, collaboration, and frankly, bathroom breaks; and if I knew the school where I might work would be fully staffed with content teachers, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker, enough administrators, etc. If I knew I could do an adequate job in a 40-hour week (obviously, it would be more some weeks and a bit less during others and yes, the work would always be on my mind), I might never have taken the break I did in the first place. I can’t work the punishing hours because I have my own children to raise. And I’m in favor to the idea of changing compensation systems to reflect the different roles and demands of different teaching jobs. If there are teachers out there who have the space in their life and desire to take on more work and responsibilities than I can, I think they should be paid more. I would be happy to take on a lesser teaching position for less money than a harder working colleague if it meant I could be in the classroom again and still be the parent I want to be. Unfortunately, it became clear to me that I had to choose.
Second of all, I was attracted to teaching because it’s intellectual, interesting, stimulating, creative, and socially useful. Well, at least it should be. As Diana Senechal put it in this comment:
The McKinsey researchers examined teacher recruitment and retention in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. They found many factors that make teaching an attractive profession in those countries: salary, job security, autonomy and trust, cultural respect, and more. Given their own findings, it’s odd that they or anyone would conclude that financial incentives should reign supreme. And there were things they should have investigated but didn’t–for instance, the intellectual and spiritual appeal of the profession.
Look at the talented people in professions where the pay is decent but not stellar–the arts, humanities, teaching, scholarship, nonprofits, journalism, and more. What brings people to these professions? Not incompetence, but interest. The work has substance.
But when the substance is driven out, when the work turns into busywork, people turn to professions that offer the combination of qualities that they seek.
Yes, the work has substance. Or it did. Or it should. Of course teaching is going to have some busy work–all jobs do. Sometimes I even look forward to the busy work as it gives me a break from the harder tasks of thinking, evaluating, planning. Of course, there are going to be some tasks I enjoy more than others. Reading up on the Bubonic Plague, planning how my students will learn about it for a world history class, and then assessing what the students have learned counts as enjoyable. Figuring out how to teach the standardized reading test to my world history students and doing a technocratic version of reading tea leaves, i.e., charting who got the “main idea” and “context clues” questions wrong on said standardized tests is not. And when the job starts to become mostly useless, fruitless busy work and mostly teaching vapid curriculum, that’s when I’d rather work as a self-employed, unpaid writer and blogger or work at something less demanding that would still save time and energy for writing.
As Nancy Flanagan put it in her typically thoughtful way,
Good teaching is not about classroom rules, cute videos, raising test scores, cool field experiences or unions. It’s about relationships, mastery, analysis, persistence, diagnosis and continuous reflection. It’s complex, layered intellectual work. And it happens in hundreds of thousands of “regular” classrooms, every day.
Yes, it’s complex, layered, challenging, and intellectual work with so many decisions to make at almost every turn. This is primarily why I want to do it. Okay, so the pay isn’t great, but when you take away the substance of it, I no longer even enjoy the work and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather do something mindless (wait tables, bar tend, or be someone’s personal assistant) where I won’t have to go against my principles.
As teacher James Boutin describes here (and again here), at some point in my teaching career, I began to feel like a bureaucrat:
During a visit I made to a private school in Denver last November, one of the teachers there confided in me that he moved out of public education because he didn’t want to be a bureaucrat. The comment struck me. I’d never thought of myself as a bureaucrat before, but he’s right – I am.
Yes, there’s certainly more room for me to be more data-informed and consider the values of a technocratic approach. But if that’s what I wanted to do, I’d go be a bureaucrat or a technocrat. If I wanted to teach test prep, I’d go work for Kaplan. That’s not what I see as the primary role of a classroom teacher. As James further demonstrates in this must-read series, the data-driven dimension of teaching has gotten out of hand and has become a huge waste of time and resources for educators and students alike. Moreover, as I was engaged in it and was forced to make ill-advised curricular choices, I realized that such tasks weren’t helping my students learn or improving my teaching, but were fueling political point-scoring and sustaining the education reform industry.
So thanks, Arne Duncan, for saying teachers should be paid more and thanks for your attempts at debunking flawed research that states otherwise. For a next step, consider advocating against acceptance of the “new normal” that translates to terrible working conditions for teachers and principals and terrible learning conditions for students. And then consider how you’re going to attract more serious college and graduate school students to the profession if the work you’re asking them to do lacks substance and insults their intelligence and, eventually, expertise. Finally, consider that if the most educated among us don’t want to do to the work because it’s bankrupt of creativity, intellectual exercise, meaning, and substance, then the education our students are going to be getting will hardly be rich, meaningful, and relevant. Think about how many of our best and brightest would rather get paid poverty wages working as adjunct professors and journalists than teach in the classrooms your and your predecessors’ policies are molding.
Perhaps this isn’t the best post to put out there as I apply for teaching jobs, but then again, I’m not going to lie or pretend. I’m going to do my best to be a team player and to be open to the advantages of a more quantitatively- or data-based approach to teaching. But I’m not going to give up my principles or knowingly engage in educational malpractice. Frankly, I’d rather scrub floors.