Today’s Columbus Dispatch features an article entitled “Teacher Salaries Raising Eyebrows.” As the child of two public school teachers, I had to wonder what could cause such eyebrow twitching. According to the Dispatch, teachers in “some districts” (note the weasel word “some”) aren’t bearing their share of the state’s fiscal pain. They’re still getting pay hikes for experience and continuing education even if their base pay has been frozen. The article quotes State Superintendent Deborah Delisle as saying it’s time for “a reality check in every single community to see what we are able to sustain.”
Nowhere does the article offer even a single figure to illustrate average salaries either statewide or in a given district.
Now, I agree that when times are tough, everyone needs to share in the burden. But last I knew, schoolteachers weren’t being overpaid. Many of them are struggling to raise their families. I’m not suggesting they struggle harder than, say, the librarians here in Athens, who have seen real cuts. However, they’re surely struggling harder than upper-level university administrators, who haven’t come under criticism from high-ranking state officials.
But schoolteachers are such a soft target! The reasons for this say a lot about our culture, and the reflection isn’t pretty. Teachers are commonly seen as having a cushy job since “they have their summers off.” That’s definitely one nice thing about teaching. In their petty envy, though, people conveniently forget that during the schoolyear, most teachers take their work home with them every night. Grading is a relentless grind, and it’s not terribly rewarding.
Then there’s anti-intellectualism. Here, we elected a president whose weak grades at Yale apparently served as a qualification for office – and we did it twice. Obama represents a departure from this. But voters’ suspicion of eggheads goes all the way back to Adlai Stevenson, and beyond. Having lived in Germany, I’ve seen the correlation between a culture’s general respect for ideas and thinkers, and the way it treats its schoolteachers. German public schools pay their teachers more generously than American schools. By the time students arrive at university, they’re far more independent as learners, and their critical thinking skills outstrip those of college-bound American kids. I’ve observed this as both a student and an instructor. My (German) husband, who has years of teaching experience in both countries’ public universities, concurs.
Then again, some of this just goes back to how often school sucks. Some people have never gotten over their personal scars from their school days. I don’t believe in nurturing grudges – they’re a stupid energy suck – but if I’m honest, I have to admit I still hold a grudge against my sadistic P.E. teacher, to the point where I’m tempted to exact revenge by using his real name here. (I’m mature enough not to – but just barely.) And I was one of those students who always had it easy, academically. I had great relationships with most of my teachers, the other exceptions being a few who were truly incompetent and one who was a creepy lech.
So I can understand why people who struggled in school don’t have much sympathy for teachers. To them I would say: You don’t have to care about the teachers. You do need to care about the kids. Where teaching is poorly paid, you’ll see a lot more lemons with a teaching certificate. This was sadly the case in the North Dakota schools where I spent my early years; I had some excellent teachers but also too many who should have changed careers but lacked other options. In 1975, 5eachers’ annual pay in my little district ranged between about $7000 and $10,000. (I know, because my mom kept the books for the school board, to supplement her salary!) I then finished high school in California just as it was dismantling its formerly great school system in the wake of passing Proposition 13. Today, California’s system is in crisis. (As is the whole state, but that’s another story.)
My kids go to a very good public school that’s less than a block from our house. It’s not perfect, but there’s really only one teacher we’ve felt a need to steer clear of. I know how lucky we are. We pay for it with a 1% income tax, which takes a big bite since it comes out of our gross income. I grouse about it a little. But I also know this: Public education is not so different from the rest of the economy. Most of the time, you get what you pay for.