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What It Means to Teach

Amy Demarest is a former classroom teacher currently writing a doctoral dissertation on how teachers use the local community to engage students more meaningfully in a democratic education. She also teaches curriculum design and place-based education to pre-service and practicing teachers at St. Michaels College and the University of Vermont.Ellen David Friedman has been a labor organizer in Vermont for nearly thirty years, the last twenty with the Vermont-National Education Association. She is also a founding member and elected officer of the Vermont Workers Center, the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign, and the Vermont Progressive Party.

Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (New York: The New Press, 2006), 355 pages, hardcover, $25.95.

Although some idealize and others demean the work of teachers, few people outside the field fully understand what it really means to teach.  Misconceptions about teaching influence the ways that Americans think about the profession.  One of the manifestations of this enduring disconnect between the American public and the professionals who teach is the low salaries teachers receive.  This is the main issue that Moulthrop, Calegari, and Eggers tackle in this thorough and valuable ethnographic study of the lives of teachers, their daily struggle to make ends meet, and what it means to teach.

The authors challenge the perception that teachers have it pretty easy and instead paint a compelling tale of the inspiration and desperation that teachers experience in their professional lives.  They examine what keeps teachers in a profession where they feel undervalued, and what makes them leave.  They include the voices of educational experts, policy makers, and other players involved in all aspects of the educational system.

The main premise of this book is that teachers need and deserve a decent salary, and that schools will improve when they’re able to attract, support, and retain “the best and the brightest” by paying higher salaries.  Well-established research is offered that attests to the relationship between teacher quality and student performance and the extent to which a teacher is the primary factor within the educational setting affecting a child’s success in school.

In their introduction, the authors present three lines of reasoning that undermine the social commitment to decent salaries for teachers.  These are: The view that teachers are well paid in relation to the time spent working; that teaching entails a life of sacrifice and service (“much like clergy, so high pay should not be an expectation”); and that teachers should be paid more but aren’t, due only to lack of available funds.

The structure of the book reflects the authors’ allegiance to the voices and experiences of the two hundred teachers interviewed, voices that directly challenge the public’s strongly held biases.  While significant research studies are presented alongside the stories, it is the voices of the teachers themselves that remain central and carry this book’s message.

The authors begin with the powerful story of Jonathan Dearman, a brilliant and talented African-American teacher who—two and a half years into the start of an outstanding teaching career—reluctantly left the profession to sell real estate when he realized he could triple his salary by selling houses and still have time for his family and himself.  Dearman’s story—a tragedy really—serves as an allegory for the rest of the book and underlines the poignancy of missed opportunity for human fulfillment, both for Dearman and his students.  As with others portrayed in the book, Dearman loved teaching but was forced out by the low pay, lost family time, and the constant stress of feeling unsuccessful, despite working seventy to eighty hours per week.

In the beginning of the book the authors outline seven prominent myths and assumptions that thwart the promise of public education.  The balance of the book offers rich testimony and effective use of supporting data that provide a robust counterpoint to these myths.

At the top of the list of myths—very familiar to anyone who’s taught—is that teachers get a great hourly wage in relation to the hours worked.  This argument echoes in countless school board meetings and living rooms around the country and is central to the point of this book.  The hourly wages argued about are the contact hours that teachers spend with students when they are “at work.” This, of course, doesn’t account for hours spent correcting, planning, gathering resources, talking with parents, and taking part in extra-curricular activities, meetings, and other professional development.  The authors present a compelling tale of the myriad of tasks and the many hours that teachers spend keeping their classrooms functioning.  Studies indicate that teachers spend an average of ten additional hours per week that are not recognized as part of their work time, while many spend a great deal more than that.

The belief that “teachers have summers off” is another popular refrain that the authors refute.  They indicate that 42 percent of teachers teach summer school or have another job and all teachers are required to take part in professional development for which they don’t get paid—and for which they must often pay.  Summer is also the time when many teachers do the bulk of their planning for the next school year.  Due to the nature of their jobs, the time for the deep and inspired thinking that is needed to design a year of learning experiences is not possible during the school year.

Third, the authors address the myth that there is no correlation between highly paid teachers and high student achievement.  While the direct correlation between pay and student performance may be disputed, commonly accepted research supports that good teachers are the single most important factor within the educational setting in a child’s success in school.

The fourth popular argument is that unions are the problem because they push for tenure (protecting “incompetent” teachers), they enforce strict adherence to hours and working conditions as stipulated in a contract, and they maintain a “lockstep” salary schedule based on years of service and educational attainment (as opposed to some unspecified measure of “performance”) in setting wages.  Unfortunately—and in our view, incorrectly—the authors do not refute this myth.  Instead, they highlight several instances where a given union has embraced an alternative compensation “reform” scheme.  In doing so they seem to reinforce the prevailing myth that unions’ adherence to principles of salary equity is a bar to performance excellence.

A fifth myth is that it is more important that working conditions be improved than salaries.  The reality is that working conditions are a significant concern, but not at the expense of salaries: both are critical.  Teachers are often unable to leave their room to use the bathroom, use a telephone, sit down for lunch, or get to a working photocopier.  Although not clearly stated by the authors, these basic workers’ rights are necessary for teachers—not because of the noble work that they do but because all workers deserve a humane working environment and salaries commensurate with their work and responsibilities.

The sixth assumption is that teaching is mainly a second-income job filled by women supplementing family income; clearly an idea left over from the postwar era when families could survive on one income—family wage income supposedly provided by the male “head of the household”—and teaching was an almost exclusively female profession.  Nevertheless, the antiquated idea that most teachers are comfortably part of a two-income household and can therefore be paid less remains a surprisingly commonly held opinion.

The seventh and last assumption is that the salaries of teachers are commensurate with other professions doing similar work.  The authors, drawing parallels to other high-stress jobs such as emergency room workers and air-traffic controllers, accurately present the high demands of teaching.  However, they don’t go far enough to illustrate that prevailing wages for other professionals of comparable education are uniformly higher than teaching wages.

Why are teachers’ wages and working conditions important to society?  The authors ask readers to consider the reality voiced by one community member that “teachers’ working conditions are also the students learning conditions” and move beyond the myths that often distort the dialogue.  They address the pervasive short-sightedness of people that can only talk about “at work” hours and that ignore the craft involved in educating young minds, and they counter the common misconceptions of those who so idealize teaching that pay is not acknowledged as a vital labor issue affecting the well-being, morale, and retention of high-quality teachers.

The consequences of the public’s attitudes and the resulting effects on salary and working conditions are substantial.  Many who enter the profession don’t stay and thousands leave after only a few years of teaching.  This high turnover and resulting low morale has a debilitating effect on those who stay.  The school loses not only the talent of the teachers who have left but also the momentum on school change initiatives and ongoing professional development.  Training and integrating new staff also drains the energy of the remaining veteran teachers.

Beyond just the empirical evidence of low wages, the fact is that teaching has largely retained a working-class status, despite its professional standards and demands: Compensation is restrained—new teachers, burdened with college debt, often do not even make a “livable wage” by numerous state standards and must frequently hold down second jobs to avoid sinking into the abyss of poverty.  Even the “career level” incomes of teachers are often lower than the entry-level salaries of other professions (they are perhaps half of the starting pay for corporate lawyers).  Status and autonomy are low; teachers work within a highly traditional hierarchy in relation both to bargaining and the power structure of schools (principals, superintendents, school boards, and state and national governments).  The very fact that teachers are maligned for their “easy” work schedule reflects an attitude that they are hourly workers, and that only their time “on the clock” should be compensated.

We wished the authors had provided a deeper historical analysis of why teaching has remained a uniquely working-class profession.  Such an analysis might have started with the question: Why are teachers one of the few professional groups that retain a largely working-class identity? Given the fact that teaching has often served as the entry-level profession for immigrants, that it is largely female, and that it is the only “wholly owned profession” in the United States (where all holders of the professional license work in public settings), it seems that a particular form of racism, sexism, and paternalism have combined over the decades to create an institutional barrier for teachers as a group.  The many myths cited by the authors serve to hold this barrier in place, but do not reveal its true socioeconomic nature.

The most effective aspect of the book is the authors’ allegiance to the stories and interviews that bring the art of teaching to vivid life, such as this quote: “There is no job like teaching…in which one person is responsible for not only the safety of, but the inspiration for, up to thirty-six individuals at once.”

Throughout the book, the authors acknowledge the human act of teaching.  It is this approach that is particularly refreshing.  When they refer to the “thirty-six individuals” in a classroom they place the discussion of education as a humanistic, shared enterprise.  They don’t talk about “student-load” or “teacher-student ratio,” as if education was an efficiency problem in a factory.  They acknowledge the myriad of ways that a teacher is continually “on” and engaged with people in a room with thirty other human beings who need to know what and how to do their tasks.  Tasks are devised and organized to generate learning of all kinds such as learning to read, analyze text, carry on a dialogue, listen, divide, etc.  It is not so much about keeping thirty human beings occupied as keeping thirty human brains in a growth mode.

The authors rely on educational experts to affirm the data gathered in the interviews.  Well-known leaders in the field such as Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond outline the complexity of the teacher’s role and what qualifications are needed.  She notes that a teacher must understand a student’s thinking and group dynamics, and know how to handle a crisis as well as teach a kid to read.  Technical skills and knowledge of one’s subject are the focus of current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) highly qualified teacher requirements, but the artistry, moral fortitude, and vision required are seldom recognized.  It should be added that increasingly these days, with the decline of many institutional supports in the wider society, teachers must also provide basic social services to students—lining children up to get glasses or to go to the dentist, counseling, helping them obtain the food they need, etc.

The powerful testimonies of teachers in this book cannot help but move readers.  We see teachers demeaned, demoralized, and deprived.  We see teachers driven by economic necessity to give up on their passionate commitment to kids.  We sense the authors’ own passion for a reordering of social priorities that would allow higher salaries for teachers, and thereby create stronger schools.  But in their series of case studies where “everybody—teachers, union leaders, administrators and school board members agreed that salaries must be higher…worked together on a local level to find a solution,” the authors give a somewhat inadequate response to the serious structural problems they alluded to earlier and to the critical role teachers will play in this transformation.

They offer three case studies—in Denver, Helena, and the San Fernando Valley—as innovative responses to the salary crisis.  To the credit of all these experimenting districts and the book’s authors, these are serious attempts to rectify compensation problems and are, therefore, well-chosen illustrations.  However, in our opinion, the authors overreach on several grounds.  First, they attempt to elevate some fairly conventional contractual practices as though they were quite innovative.  For example, Helena’s provision of early retirement incentives to highly paid senior teachers is a rather common practice.  They describe certain salary enhancements as tied to “performance” (a linkage the authors clearly support), when they are in fact tied to additional work.  This, too, is a well-known principle in traditional teacher contracts.  They describe purportedly unique self- and peer-evaluation processes that—for example in our home state of Vermont—are actually embedded in the statutory teacher licensure requirements.

In each of these examples, we discern the authors’ efforts to distinguish “reform” solutions from traditional “union” approaches, as if to criticize—in much the way a right-wing critic might—the stultifying effects of union salary negotiations.  They fail to recognize the constantly evolving nature of teacher contracts, and tend to align with anti-union critics on weak grounds.  Another weakness of these case studies is that they rely on unique funding sources (private philanthropy or extraordinary tax levies) that are not universally available.

The authors do cite the importance of teacher collaboration and democratic practice as instrumental in transforming the culture and organization (including teachers’ salaries) of schools.  These efforts are noted in the case studies, but not presented as a central part of the solution.  There is, unfortunately, a strong tradition of school reform done to and for teachers.  In our opinion, any discussion of improving schools must include teachers and students as active participants.  Professional learning communities, the inclusion of student voice, increased community dialogue, and the innovative restructuring of leadership are pockets of hope in today’s bleak educational landscape.  Although isolated, it is this progressive movement that carries the promise for school democratization.

Both within the authors’ own terms, and those we refer to above, the issue is quite simply one of supporting teachers to do their job and paying them adequately to do so.  The tragic irony of the U.S. educational system is that the answer is hidden in plain view.  Teachers are constrained by low salaries, and the implications of this are artfully attested to in this book.  But they are also constrained by schedules, expectations, and demands issued in hierarchal patterns of decision-making.  The realities and attitudes of the larger society hinder teachers and students from reaching their full potential and engaging in the critical decisions that need to be made in order to change schools.  The question of teacher salary needs to be seen in this larger context.

Despite these criticisms, the importance of this book at the current historical moment should not be underestimated.  The harsh imperative of privatization puts U.S. public education under dire threat, with vouchers, charter schools, spending caps, and the punitive impact of NCLB high-stakes testing only the most obvious weapons.  A defense of public education must of necessity include a defense of the public profession of teaching and an expanded public understanding of what it means to teach.