During the early years of the Great Recession, after 14 years in medicine, I hung up my stethoscope and began training to become a teacher. It was a dismal time for public education in North Carolina. Deep funding cuts resulted in increased class sizes, decreased support services, and stagnant wages. Now, a decade later, our economy has recovered, but our education spending has not. In my state, as in many others, morale is low. Highly qualified teachers are leaving our public schools, and the field struggles to attract new talent. What drives people away, my colleagues explain, are chronic deficits of pay and respect.
It is relatively easy to gauge the degree to which we underpay teachers. A quick comparison highlights North Carolina’s compensation problem: Only three states pay teachers less than we do. Teachers from across North Carolina are planning to protest on May 16 at the state capitol for higher pay and education funding.
Disrespect and poor treatment, on the other hand, are far more difficult to describe and to measure. But these equally pressing problems take a tremendous toll on the entire education system. Until we remedy our pervasive denigration of teachers, reforms promising to deliver effective public education will continue to miss the mark.
Finding the Right Career for ‘Helpful’ Work
When I was a young adult, it seemed logical to pursue medicine as a means of helping others. The more I practiced, however, the more I came to understand that the hospital’s narrow jurisdiction is limiting. Doctors heal illnesses and relieve symptoms, yet often leave patients despairing because they remain socially disconnected, emotionally isolated, educationally displaced, or struggling to overcome poverty. Studying and addressing medical pathology, though impactful, began to seem less magical than fostering resilience.
I realized was trying to address critical issues in the wrong context. I was trying to do the work of a teacher.
It is a particularly bitter irony that teachers have so little power, since they pay the time and energy costs of schools' missteps and bear the full burden of accountability for student outcomes."
I came to education in pursuit of that broader mandate, without illusions. I understood that leaving the medical profession to join the teaching ranks would be perceived by some as a downgrade. The feedback I received during my career transition, however, revealed the true extent to which we disparage our teachers and the work of teaching. One horrified friend protested my plan, exclaiming, “But what you do now has such social value!”
I was even called in for an extra interview with admissions officers at one of the graduate teaching programs to which I applied. They explained that my application “raised obvious questions” and went on to suggest that I would have trouble adjusting to working with colleagues who were “not my intellectual peers.”
Disrespect Is a Pressing Problem
Inevitably, these deprecating messages about teaching seep into our schools. In K-12 education, cynical views of teacher integrity and work ethic are woven into internal policies. Teachers are salaried employees, yet we are often required to sign in or do after-hours work from campus, so that administrators can monitor our whereabouts and use of time.
Even more consequential, however, are the system failures that arise because of this distrust. Though we work directly with students and best understand their needs as well as obstacles to implementation, teacher perspectives often are treated as extraneous to school planning processes. Our instruction shifts at the behest of consultants while teacher insights remain untapped. Short-sighted decisionmaking that bypasses teachers not only impugns our judgment, it also results in wasteful spending, ineffective programs, and time inefficiencies.
The constant churn of such initiatives breeds disengagement. Absent are mechanisms by which teachers can evaluate schools’ decisions and decisionmakers. It is a particularly bitter irony that teachers have so little power, since they pay the time and energy costs of schools’ missteps and bear the full burden of accountability for student outcomes.
Teachers’ Work Is ‘Hard and Messy’
As a pediatrician, it is hard for me to understand this widespread devaluation of those caring for and educating our nation’s children. Both teachers and doctors work tirelessly to decrease suffering and enhance well-being through essential and complementary methods.
Perhaps our mismeasurement of teachers comes from a historical derogation of tasks often considered “women’s work” or from a societal undervaluing of children. Maybe it is simply the result of adults’ negative memories of school. But I believe this widespread derision also arises because so many outside of the field misunderstand the complexity of the job.
Teachers’ work is hard and messy. Meeting the educational and developmental needs of children in schools is every bit as difficult as meeting their medical needs in hospitals and clinics. Yet, instead of honoring the intensity and multidimensionality of the job, we trivialize the intricacies and minimize the challenges. For those who move out of the classroom, it can be easy to forget the struggle.
That so many inspired teachers persevere in our classrooms despite the hostile climate is a testament to their resilience and commitment to children. Yet to assume that capable teachers will stay or thrive despite poor treatment is a misguided strategy.
There are no quick fixes to the problems that we have created by undervaluing the work and contribution of teachers. Certainly, in addition to implementing effective staffing ratios, developing fair evaluation systems, and providing teachers with adequate classroom resources, we must finally pay teachers commensurate to the value of their work.
But these steps alone are not enough. If we are to strengthen our society and economy through education, we must name and realign our negative cultural disposition toward teachers and the education field. By remedying teacher pay and respect, we will boost education—and also improve the health of our nation.