Ready to be a teacher? There will be a quiz…

Welcome to the hot seat. So, let’s play Who Wants To Be A Teacher?

You know the rules, of course. There are no free calls or lifelines. Here is your piece of chalk. You are on your own

Answer fifteen straight questions correctly and you will win the grand prize of a Teaching Certificate. This certificate will guarantee you the privilege of struggling against impossible odds for three decades to win the hearts and minds of the 5,700 children likely to enter your classroom.

Now, let’s answer the first question for which the prize will be the much-coveted reduced-interest-rate on your mortgage. If you miss at any time, you will revert back to the consolation prize of a ream of paper. So, let’s get to the first question!

 “A person described as a Jack-of-All-Trades is also characterized as a Master of …”

A. Nun
B. One
C. None
D. Education

There is a lot riding on this. So, think it through carefully.

The contestant wavers. “A” and “B” are obviously the distractors. It seems a fairly sure bet that item “C” is the answer, but our contestant knows some teachers and item “D” remains a troubling possibility.

The audience is in suspense as the contestant wrings her hands and wipes her forehead and fervently wishes she could call a friend or poll the audience.  

So, let us discuss her quandary.

Teaching is not just one job. Classroom instructors hold a panoply of part-time jobs that require them to engage in frenetic multi-tasking simply to survive.

Teachers are part-time clericals, part-time security guards, part-time detectives, part-time counselors, part-time administrators and finally, by sheer necessity, part-time instructors.

“Part-time clerical?” you ask. From Advanced Placement to Special Education, most teachers drown in a morass of paper: endless corrections with no hope of reprieve, data-entry, Individual Education Programs, letters of recommendation, requests for daily individual progress reports, quarterly progress reports and gradesheets (and the computation thereof!), to name but a few.

Other professionals staff out various tasks; teachers carve time out of their evenings and weekends to do it all themselves.  

“Part-time security guard?” you ask. The assignment of insufficient support personnel in the building leaves teachers with the responsibility of being in the hallway before school, between classes and for some portion of their so-called “planning” period supervising children in passage. Instead of organizing as one class departs and preparing for the next to arrive, potential instructional time is lost at the beginning and end of every class because keeping a lid on the pressure cooker in the hallway is a much higher priority in most schools.

“Part-time detective?” you ask. Because much of the information in the school database is obsolete within months of being acquired, it can take weeks to make the “required” parental contact prior to administrative intervention for attendance or behavior problems. Negotiating the labyrinth of disconnected phone lines, prior employment, changed addresses and serial guardianship can be a daunting task, especially in schools where 30% of the student body rotates between the ninth and the twelfth grade.

“Part-time counselor?” you ask. Go ahead and scold your students about missing assignments only to discover that one is living in a homeless shelter, or that another is living in a home for unwed mothers with an ailing six-month infant and no health care. Just luring some of these children into the schoolhouse constitutes a daily miracle as they confront the onset of adult consequences during adolescence. How does the school deliver meaningful supports to such students when teachers routinely have 190+ students and guidance counselors may advise 480 students?

 “Part-time administrator?” you ask. The administration, too, is consistently understaffed. Teachers are enlisted, therefore, to help manage the school. Ostensibly, this serves to train future administrators, but such time would be better-spent planning lessons if better instruction were the primary function.

The inevitable desire to see increased academic performance leads teachers to accept unpaid committee assignments and underpaid department chairmanships that invariably consume far more time than foreseen.

 “Part-time instructor?” you ask. Invariably, it is instructional priorities that suffer as typical teachers struggle to satisfy the myriad responsibilities that comprise their workday. Do you want your child’s teacher perfecting a lesson plan, providing feedback on some written work, OR standing in front of the school counting the school buses as they arrive? Which of these sounds like an optimal use of the talent pool?

The time has come for teachers to perform the task for which they are trained.

In most cases, teachers just want to teach. Teachers need the time to plan & deliver instruction and, then, assess whether learning has taken place. If the improvement of learning outcomes is the goal, then respect the act of teaching by severely reducing, if not entirely eliminating, non-instructional duties.

The community must find a way to furnish adequate human resources in support of teachers and children.

Much ado has been made in recent months about the projected teacher shortage. That much-discussed shortfall of educators is a figment of our collective imagination.

There is no shortage of persons certified to teach in this nation. There is a shortage of people willing to accept a 60-hour workweek for a 35-hour paycheck.

Former teachers do not disappear from the face of the earth. They quit the profession for just cause after dispassionately examining the ratio between heartache and reward. Teachers come into the classroom for the opportunity to teach children, and they leave because they are systematically denied the opportunity to excel at their chosen endeavor.

Our children deserve more than a frazzled Jack-of-All-Trades in their classrooms. They require the focus of a Master-of-One-Trade and until such time as the primary functions of teachers are delivery-of-instruction and assessment-of-student learning, we must anticipate a dearth of contestants for any game show called “Who Wants to Be a Teacher?”


Further Reading: The situation has not improved… :

Further Reading: Teacher Retention in Georgia?

Number of Future Teachers Reaches All Time Low

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on December 19, 2001.  The photo is from the game show “Who wants to be a Millionaire”]

Fear and Loathing in the American Classroom: Debunking the the Myth of the Teacher Shortage

Exodus 5: 10-11 — “And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. 
Go ye, get your straw where ye can find it: yet not aught of your work shall be diminished.

Human willingness to endure suffering has limits. When subjected to an unreasonable workload, those who labor will eventually seek any alternative to ceaseless toil. The burden of national expectations — the edict to leave no child behind, for example — have been placed squarely on the shoulder of educators with predictable results. Educators pose the question, “Where are the increased human and material resources to meet this vastly expanded goal for our Public Schools?” Our society has mostly responded with Exodus 5: 11, see above

Recently, the media have shared the concerns of school systems struggling to recruit educators into their classrooms. Nationwide, teacher preparation programs also report insufficient enrollment to furnish the replacements for the looming wave of baby-boomer retirements. Do the math: educators are leaving the profession faster than we can prepare their replacements. 

These stories are becoming a rite of autumn as schools open, and the trend is no longer sustainable. 

Late each spring, thousands-upon-thousands of teachers — most of whom are effective practitioners in the classroom — pack up their materials one last time, raise the white flag of surrender and tender letters of resignation. The issue is most apparent in regions with high concentrations of poverty; it is not uncommon for such schools to experience a complete turnover of the faculty every few years. Dr. Richard Ingersoll established long ago that in excess of 50% of teachers do not make it to a sixth year in the classroom.

It is true that not all teachers leave the profession. A tiny portion will receive promotions. A larger group will migrate to greener educational pastures. Too many, however, succumb to the despair of unwieldy demands in the workplace and simply find another line of work. Recently, during an impromptu exit interview, an about-to-be-former educator responded tearfully when asked what she would do next. “Anything else!”  She doubled her salary and works in the IT industry, now.

What is it like to teach in 2015? With but the rarest of exceptions, the teaching profession is characterized by lack of professional autonomy in addressing the educational needs of children, excessive intrusions on personal time, archaic resources, unreasonable caseloads, inadequate facilities and, to top it all off, vilification by the punditry and the political class.

Working conditions are so generally abhorrent that slightly more than 9% of the nation’s teaching force of 4.5 million fails to survive even the first year in public education. Every single year, several hundred thousand teachers simply walk away from a teaching credential that required several years to obtain. Across this thirty year career, a surfeit of educators has only existed during severe economic downturns when other work was scarce. 

So, the shortage of teachers does not really exist. The nearly constant churn in the teaching force suggests, instead, the more intractable problem of economically-challenged school systems lacking the capacity to place committed educators in a position to effect positive change in the lives of children. Change that dynamic and a horde of former educators stands ready to return to the classroom. 

The National Center on Teacher Quality has proposed five ways that school districts might stem the constant hemorrhaging of potential career teachers. NCTQ proposes the creation of improved career pathways, addressing inequities in teacher placements, embracing teacher-led professional development, supplying more job-imbedded time for collaboration and untethering teacher evaluation from tests. The impediments? Cost implications abound.

Unless the community is content to stifle the aspirations of educators and squander the dreams of children, the focus must soon shift attention away from annual recruitment of novices and over to the retention of more experienced, highly effective educators. Making every classroom a manageable workplace must become the national priority. Our children deserve nothing less.

The annual exodus of teachers from the profession should result in the sounding of klaxons across this nation because it places the next generation of children at risk. Turnover, however, is the only logical outcome of abrogated contracts, classroom overcrowding, obsolete materials, lack of support and leaking roofs. All who abandon the vocation of shaping young minds are declaring forthrightly that they simply refuse to gather their own proverbial straw.

Further Reading: neaToday…


[This is a much revised version of a commentary that appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel on November 8, 2015.]

Looking at Schools Through Rose-Colored Glasses?

A reader once asked, “Why don’t you ever write positive articles about the good things that good students do in our schools?” Rest assured, dear readers, that motivated students are among the principal reasons that many teachers endure, despite daunting challenges, for decades.

One such young lady grew up in El Salvador. Witness, at a very tender age, to the armed barbarism of the Death Squads along her neighborhood street, she persevered in her newly-adopted country. She might have withdrawn into precocious nihilism, but instead remained  bright and ebullient despite her early introduction to the unspeakable horrors of humankind. With an elementary grammar and a reader, she had taught herself to speak French, virtually unaided, to just short of near-native fluency prior to her arrival in my classroom while still learning English as a second language. 

In her second year of French, she memorized and performed recitations of La Fontaine’s “Les Animaux malades de la peste” and Perrault’s “Le Petit chaperon rouge” for the advanced classes. The memory of this intellectual feat still stupefies me. She hugged and thanked me when she got the best possible score on a competitive National Exam though my contribution had been, at best, that of a pedestrian giving directions to a passerby. Later, she received a full-ride scholarship and graduated with honors.

Many are the remarkable reminiscences that teachers might share.

Such recollections, however, also plant the seeds for the second career crisis suffered by many a teacher. The first? Teachers quickly realize that they are expected to deliver far too much for far too many young people with far too few resources. The most heartfelt and patient ministrations are spread too thin on a clientele of overwhelming number.

Later, usually between the third and fifth year, teachers begin to question their relevance in the educational process. The strongest students succeed admirably no matter who is teaching; the weakest students fail to thrive academically despite even herculean efforts; and finally, an overwhelming number of average students are content to slide by with meeting minimal requirements. If internalized, this can lead to feelings of professional impotence and futility akin to the feeling of walking up a very long escalator in rapid descent.  

Teachers must frequently accept on faith, alone, that their efforts are producing desired effects on the academic achievement of students. Occasionally, students return years later to inform teachers that instruction has borne fruit, but such anecdotal evidence often fails to overcome a feeling of futility. Let’s call this feeling “Instructional Dysfunction Syndrome”. Even though it is more perception than reality, it ends too many teaching careers prematurely.

As tempting as it may be, taking too much pride in the high achievers that cross our thresholds is pointless. As the French are so fond of saying, “Even a blind pig occasionally finds a truffle.” Chances are that the high achiever’s successes are more accurately attributed to familial support and personal motivation than to inherently superior instructional practice. Such students likely succeed no matter who delivers instruction.

Students at the other end of the spectrum tend to command more attention from teachers in the public schools. Low achievers tend to exist in greater numbers. Their needs are immeasurably greater. If left unattended, their effect on the learning environment can be indescribably detrimental. While simple human concern for weaker students is involved in attending to their varied needs, motivated self-interest is also a factor in tailoring instruction to suit that demographic.

Fairly early in my career a defiant student admonished my efforts to inspire him, “You can’t teach me, cuz I won’t learn.” How does a student arrive in High School capable of such an observation? How are the Public Schools going to overcome willful and obstinate ignorance? What resources will be required to surmount such negative socialization and how do we persuade legislators to allocate them? These are questions that deserve answers soon.

Once, a student endured my panglossian lecture on the concept of cause-and-effect as related to grades. He was informed that if he did not study he would not be able to pass my quizzes and tests, and that if he did not pass quizzes and tests and neglected his assignments, then passing the class would be, at best, a dubious proposition. This student very calmly responded, “I’ve failed classes before. I’ll fail classes again. I hate school.”

Frankly, this mindset has always been impenetrable to this lifelong learner. While never the “best” of students, self-directed learning was my passion long before knowing the term “autodidact“. Early on, school represented my escape from the endless chores of farm life. Four decades later the names of my primary school teachers still resound: first grade, Mrs. Keller; second grade, Mrs. Haines (no relation); third grade, Mrs. Stickley; fourth grade, Mrs. Turner; fifth grade, Mrs. Houghton; six grade, Mrs. Marden.

Middle school brought new challenges: French, Mrs. Barbara Russell; Music, Mr. Harold Fox; Math, Mrs. Gensler and Mr. MacKenzie; English, Mr. St. Clair; Social Studies, Mrs. Holmes; Physical Education, Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Proctor. Regrettably, the synapses that held Industrial Arts and Science are lost. It was a shock that my school transcripts did not record the teachers of my classes.

Four decades ago came High School. Each of my teachers, even those few whose names fail to come to mind, helped instill an indelible love of learning: English, Mr. Sellers; Biology, Mrs. Moore; German, Herr Reger and Frau Benson; N.J.R.O.T.C, Chief Tarasuk; Geometry, Mr. Arnold; History, Mr. Tom Walsh and Mr. Miller; Drama, Michelle (Don’t call me Miss) Busti.

The Fates were less than kind in my junior year. The vicissitudes of life compelled me to drop out of school in my senior year, but by then learning was a lifestyle. Each of the names mentioned here merits an article in tribute for having kept that passion alive. Herein resides their apotheosis. 

To this day, I still cherish the memory of virtually every person I have ever called my teacher.

-Too frequently, my students called me… Mr. Ummm.

-On a good day, they called me Mr. Ummm-Haines.

-On a bad day, they called me by the name of the teacher down the hall.

-On test days they muttered expletives….

It is a challenge not to take it personally.

While researchers have proven that students genuinely “do not remember” chattering in class even when shown videotapes of themselves doing so, it is nonetheless annoying that children will quarrel vociferously about whether they were talking in class even when instruction has been halted and everyone has been eavesdropping. Visions invade my dreams of students pointing a remote control my way while vigorously and repeatedly pushing the mute button. At other times, I feel like little more than a speed bump on my students’ road to a social life.

Acute disinterest in anything academic has become the norm. For many students, it is way cool to play the fool. A disquieting aura of “chic” envelops the state of vacuousness. We inhabit a world where bright students will systematically give incorrect answers they know to be wrong in order to avoid being labeled a “nerd”. This is a rejection of societal values that must be overcome.

How and when will this lofty goal be accomplished?

According to the precepts of psychotherapy, patients must first realize that a problem exists, and second they must want a cure. Only then are they ready for the arduous process of therapy. 

Looking at our schools through the rose-colored glasses of anecdotal success stories will lead some to the delusion that we have committed sufficient resources to the education of our children and that those left behind have none to blame but themselves. Both of those assumptions are erroneous. 

We must undertake the hard work of seeking the cure. Too little has changed in the two millennia since Epictetus proclaimed “Only the educated are free.” 


[This is a much revised version of a “Viewpoint” that appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in June of 2000.]

More work needed toward workplace equality

National Women’s History Month 2016 draws to a close. After centuries of wives being regarded as chattel, social justice for women has been on the rise since the mid-19th century’s passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in a number of American states.

Faded into the role of obscure metaphorical allusion is “the rule of thumb” which, according to English jurisprudence, granted husbands the right to chastise their spouses with a stick no more broad than his thumb. 

In 1920, the power of women grew by leaps and bounds with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States establishing universal suffrage. The fundamental civil right of all citizens to vote has forever reshaped the American political landscape. 

Dr. King would affirm decades later that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” One satisfactory benchmark for parity between the sexes remains untested: abolishing male-centric policies in the workplace around compensation and advancement. As Michael Moore proposed in “Where to Invade Next”, following Iceland’s lead and electing more women to representative bodies would be a good first step. 

We still need the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Despite the passage of the landmark Lilly Ledbetter Act, bending the arc of moral justice toward “equal pay for equal work” remains an as yet unachieved dream.

It is well-documented that female nurse practitioners still earn 11 percent less than their male counterparts. For decades, female physician assistants, likewise, have noted discrepancies with the income of male colleagues. It is tragic enough that women have historically found themselves disadvantaged wherever they compete directly with men.

For the so-called “pink collar careers” like teaching, professions typically staffed predominantly by women, it is unconscionable that starting salaries now frequently fail to support families, or even to service the debt acquired while pursuing the mandated credentials. 

Women, indeed, have come a long way; the work, however, is still in progress.

 

[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 27, 2014.]

Professional Traumatic Stress Disorder: aka “Burnout”

The age of political correctness saw Shakespeare chastised posthumously for sardonically recommending in Henry VI a very radical initial step for improving society. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Never meant to be taken seriously, this jest was likely meant to inspire laughter among the groundlings and noblemen alike.

Today, certain ideologues of education reform quite seriously stipulate the first step toward improving Public Education. They shout, “Get rid of bad teachers!” Unfortunately, too many people nod their heads in assent to what seems, at first blush, to be a relatively benign proposition. Who could oppose ridding schools of ineffective instructors?

Clearly, however, people are no longer breaking down the doors of the schoolhouse to become teachers. Quite the contrary, school systems are struggling mightily to fill teaching positions. It is well chronicled, now, that the majority of those few who run the gauntlet of travails in the schoolhouse seek other venues for their talent within five years of decorating their first classroom. We are more successful at driving dynamic teachers out of the profession than those who perform marginally. Inadequate compensation and benefits, interminable labor, mounting responsibilities, declining resources and erroneously attributed blame all contribute to this trend.

Furthermore, were we successful in dismissing every teacher of marginal competence, from what unknown pool of talent do you suppose their replacements might be drawn? Occasionally, the “devil” you know is preferable to the “devil” you have yet to meet.

These are but the first challenges posed by making teachers the scapegoats for our nation’s errant education policies. The questionable hypothesis that teachers, themselves, are solely to blame for lack of productivity in their workplaces remains an unproven assertion trumpeted by ideologues seeking to distract the general public from the real drags on student achievement.

Human beings have a penchant for blaming victims for the misfortunes they endure. Has anyone not perused the account of some crime and wondered what the victim was thinking while wandering in that neighborhood at that time of night? Does a victim’s momentary lapse of reason somehow excuse a criminal act? How many of us have participated in discussions of infamous incidents that ended by questioning the intelligence – or sanity – of the victim?

So, it should come as no surprise that blame for our educational woes should land at the feet of classroom teachers. Politicians often ask labor leaders when they will take a stand on the removal of incompetent educators from the ranks of classroom teachers.

A simple question deserves a simple response. 

  • Such a stand will only be viable when simple survival in the classroom no longer requires universal application of superhuman effort on a timescale that wears down even the most committed advocate for Public Education.

Rocket science is not involved. 

Our society must wage the war on ignorance the same way it wages war on the battlefield. We must place a well-equipped, overwhelming force at the point of attack and commit logistical support until the objective is attained. A military leader knows that a 10-1 ratio is likely necessary against an entrenched adversary. 

Would you question an army’s competence in fighting hordes of barbarians if it were limited to engaging the enemy with peashooters and slingshots during a campaign that lasted many decades? Would you label as incompetent the wounded foot-soldiers?

Dismissing every teacher who eventually raises the white flag of surrender will not improve Public Education. Furnishing every teacher with a reasonable caseload, adequate resources and appropriate time will…. 

Few events are more heart-rending than knowing a once-upon-a-time innovative and dynamic teacher and overhearing one of his students say to a classmate, “You know, Mr. Bartleby just don’t teach.”

Mr. Bartleby might be trying to hang on a few more years for the benefit of the worst retirement plan in the country following three decades of grossly inadequate compensation. Mr. Bartleby has likely corrected more than 500,000 papers submitted by nearly 5,000 students during a successful career prior to the onset of health problems. Unfortunately, he can no longer tolerate the interminable sessions of paper grading and lesson planning into the wee morning hours. Does this mean he has nothing left to contribute?

The word spreads that Mr. Bartleby is no longer “chewing the leather”. People begin to notice his less-than-stringent adherence to school policies. Next year might mean being assigned the most challenging classes and the most onerous non-teaching duties in the hope of compelling him to move on or accept the meager benefit of partial retirement.

Is it any wonder why Mr. Bartleby might choose to follow the lead of Herman Melville’s famous scrivener and say “I would prefer not to…”

Often merely exhausted by the unrealistic expectations of the modern classroom, the education profession is diminished when the Mr. Bartleby’s of this world are needlessly driven from its ranks.

Most of us would accept as axiomatic the admonition of Paul Tsongas that, “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.” Yet, it is presumed that teachers will commit whatever time is necessary, with alacrity mind you, to educate however many students the community chooses to squeeze into classrooms. It is also assumed that, as primary recompense for their never-ending altruistic endeavor, teachers will experience paroxysms of satisfaction while basking in the sparkling of a learner’s eyes.

Most teachers selflessly contribute countless hours to their craft while feigning cheerful acceptance of the delayed gratification lifestyle. Any measurable success in the classroom currently demands such personal sacrifice.

Today, devoting anything less than the totality-of-being to the profession carries with it the implied threat of being labeled “incompetent” or “unworthy“.

Teaching is exceedingly difficult even for those blessed with good fortune and robust health. When life delivers serious difficulties – as life is wont to do on occasion – even paragons of virtue eventually succumb. Who among us is blessed with infinite stamina?

Do we want elevate the professional practice of all teachers? Do we want to see improved academic performance for students? Assign all educators a workload that is manageable in something approaching a normal work day…


Further Reading:


[The original version of this Viewpoint appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 9, 2002. ]

Experience Matters for Educators, too!

Help children reach their potential

[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on May 22, 2014. ]

Checks on the power of big money?

Corporations, institutions that serve the interests of the financial elite, have been accorded “personhood” by the judiciary.  Unions, however, institutions that serve the interests of the multitudes, hear the tolling of the bells for the basic right to associate and bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of employment. It appears the nation has forgotten an essential part of Abraham Lincoln’s First Annual Message, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

In case it has escaped your attention, the monolithic “power” frequently ascribed to organized labor is a hoax perpetrated by the investor class who uses immense wealth to fund legislation and litigation that will seriously limit the rights of labor. In the 1950’s just less than half of the American workforce was organized; today the number is around 11% and those are mostly public sector employees. The decline of earning power in the middle class has matched the decline in union membership. 

Those who own the gold are making the rules, and the first rule is they get to keep all the gold. So, the oligarchy lobbies for cleverly named legislation called “Right to Work” that abolishes collective bargaining and allows employers to pay subsistence wages and cut benefits for those who actually perform the labor. As George Carlin so cogently observed some years ago, “There are no permanent ‘Rights’ in America; there are only temporary ‘privileges’ that can be taken away at any time.”  

Allowing the rug to be pulled out from under organized labor dishonors the memory of those who laid down their lives for the ‘right’ to bargain collectively. 

The Vergara ruling on California’s tenure law is another case in point.

Blaming the well-chronicled disparities in education between affluent and impoverished communities on “teacher tenure” constitutes a classic red herring argument that attempts to distract the public from the well-chronicled issue of poverty-induced stressors on the readiness to learn of children. 

Furthermore, “tenure” for professional educators has never constituted a “guarantee” of employment, but merely a protection against the capricious dismissals that once were rampant in the schoolhouse for causes ranging from nepotism to political dissent.

Ultimately, the potential elimination of due process and just-cause termination for career educators is just as likely to prove harmful to children as we become overly focused on shedding the comparatively few incompetent instructors instead of retaining the overwhelming majority of potentially effective ones.

Taking responsibility for elevating the professional practice of all educators is of paramount importance to teachers if they are to re-establish the respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers’ unions have been grappling with such efforts, successfully, for a number of years. If corporatist reformers focused on the financial bottom line have their way, however, budgetary considerations could soon hold sway over instructional priorities.

Experienced, well-compensated educators would be no more. After a lifetime of honing their professional practice and enhancing instructional repertoires, career educators could fall prey to “budget axes” and a younger, more compliant workforce. Where will such practices evolve? As always, financially-strapped school districts would be a great guess!

 

[The original version of this “Commentary” first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on July 3, 2014.]

Seeking social justice for all children

There’s more than one kind of gender bias in the schools

The celebration of International Women’s Month is at hand. Now that we are more than a decade into the new millennium, it is long past time to join the struggle against what French feminists gleefully labeled the “phallocrats“. Women, most frequently charged with the care and custody of children in divorced households, still only earn 78% of what their male counterparts earn for similar labor. 

It is reported in Labor’s Untold Story by Boyer and Morais that men had difficulty supporting a family on $15 a week in the post Civil War economy. The years 1860-1865 had seen a 43% increase in wages but 116% inflation. 

One is mostly left to imagine the tales of woe and despair experienced by women and children of the same period working 18 hours-a-day at a loom for $3 a week. However, it is known that many thousands died yearly as a result of the unbridled exploitation of the labor force, and countless more were injured and maimed. Hence it should be reverentially recalled that the phrase “Equal Pay for Equal Work” was coined at that time by William H. Sylvis as he attempted to convince his National Labor Union to allow membership for women. 

Lamentably, not only would he never see this simple moral precept come to fruition, a century and half later and women are still waiting for simple economic justice. At the beginning of the 21st century, women have improved by less than “two-bits” from the 59 cents on the dollar they earned a couple decades ago. 

So, what hope is there for teachers? 

This is no idle question. What hope is there for adequate compensation in a profession dominated by an historically exploited class of worker?  It goes straight to the heart of the problem with teacher compensation. Women comprise 75 percent of teachers regionally (90 percent at the elementary level!). It is abundantly clear that this society declines to pay women at a level commensurate with male peers in male-dominated professions with similar requirements for credentials.

To date, the answer to that question has been short and sweet. There is not much hope at all. Ideologues offer the same tired alibis and excuses for not compensating teachers. How many of these have you heard? 

Teachers have it easy. Teachers already earn too much. Teachers only work 40 weeks a year. Teachers only work 7 ½ hours a day. Teachers are only earning “supplemental” incomes, what used to be referred to as “pin money“. Teachers are not here for a career, etc. 

None of these propositions is categorically true. In fact, they border on preposterously false. Still, they do play off popular beliefs and misconceptions about teaching as a profession, not to mention the cavalier attitude that some in this society have toward “women’s work” in general and the general undertow of anti-intellectualism  in American society. 

In his “White Paper Report on Education in 1988, Tom Brokaw said in his summation, “I don’t care who you are or what you do for living, you do not work any harder than a teacher.” Colleagues at the time expressed shock and amazement that someone from outside the profession had recognized this fact. 

Teaching is not an easy line of work and the hours are interminable. The reason new mothers frequently abandon the classroom, when they are able to do so, is that caring for babies virtually precludes being able to devote the countless hours needed for effective lesson-planning and correcting of student work outside the contractual day, nor is the level of financial compensation adequate to justify the hiring of secondary caregivers.

Those unable to take a hiatus – single mothers come to mind -often pay terrible prices in lost time with their children and the financial drain of day care. 

There has been a vast demographic change in recent decades. According to the Brookings Institute Center in “A Region Divided,” roughly 12.7 percent of homes in Prince George’s County were single parent households in 1996, which constituted a 27 percent share of such households in the metropolitan region. In 80 percent of those households the single parent was a woman. Furthermore, the average single father earned $36,364 in 1997 and the average single mother $23,040. 

We do not know how many single parents are teachers, but many of my colleagues are single with children for any variety of reasons. However, we do know that fewer men go into teaching, and inability to support a family on the prevailing wage is one of the justifications frequently cited. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that single mothers are disproportionately hurt by lower salaries for teachers, especially when computations are made for breaks-in-service for child rearing. 

Therefore, as our budgeting season is in full swing, let us realize that teacher compensation is also a feminist issue. This campaign must start with some small battle to be fought, and hopefully won. So what better way could there be to celebrate International Women’s Month than by joining in the struggle to eliminate gender-based inequities in compensation …

Furthermore, let us begin with the professions dominated by women, namely teaching and nursing. It would be good for women. It would be good for children. For if it is true that justice delayed is justice denied, this is justice that is far too long overdue. 

 

[The original “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on March 9, 2000. It has been revised and updated.]