Teaching Profession Opinion

Un-Flattening the Teaching Profession

By Justin Baeder — April 03, 2012 4 min read
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One of the chief challenges to the teaching profession’s status as a profession is its flatness. A first-year teacher has the same duties and working conditions as a 30-year veteran, and while the latter may be higher on the pay scale, not much else changes as a teacher (or a principal, for that matter) gains experience and expertise.

We get better at what we do, but no new opportunities or differentiated responsibilities are built into the structure of the career. At best, we might move to either a more desirable or more challenging school or teaching assignment (depending on what one sees as a step forward), but for the most part, the profession is flat.

If you want to leave the classroom, there are lots of opportunities, but there are few indeed for those who wish to continue teaching. This needs to change.

First, this flatness creates a nearly vertical learning curve for new teachers—it’s more like a butte than a prairie—and a fairly level slope after 5 to 7 years. Tossing new teachers into their own classrooms with full responsibility from day one is a baptism by fire that isn’t good for teachers or students.

Second, it drives out people who want to continue to challenge themselves and reinvent themselves as professionals—at least, those who want their duties and compensation to evolve with them. Currently, the only reward the profession can offer for reinvention is a renewed sense of satisfaction.

Third, the flatness of the teaching profession creates the false impression that all teachers are equal. This impression is necessarily reinforced by principals - if I place your child in a new teacher’s classroom, I have to convince you as a parent that your child is just as well-off as if she’d been placed in a veteran’s classroom. Of course, all else being equal, this is never true—a teacher will always be better after 5 years of experience than in the first year, even one who starts out very strong. (Again, the same goes for principals.)

Instead, I believe we should have real career ladders within the teaching profession. My district has attempted to create career ladder positions, but these are really just stipends for extra work; they’re given out on the basis of performance, but they don’t change the day-to-day duties of any given teacher. That won’t cut it.

Real career ladders would change teachers’ duties as they mature and become ready for increasing responsibility. This doesn’t mean moving into management; good teachers should not have to become coaches or principals to advance. It means taking on increasing responsibility for the learning of groups of students. Arthur Wise hints at this in his essay “End the Tyranny of the Self-Contained Classroom,” which I mentioned in my last post.

Let’s say we have a grade-level team composed of a new teacher (1st year), a 10-year veteran, and a 20-year veteran. In my district, the salaries for these teachers would be as follows, assuming all have a Master’s degree (which is typical):
1st year: $49,716
10th year: $57,256
20th year (maxed out after 12th year): $60,710
Total for team: $167,682
(I’m in pricey Seattle, so these salaries are well above the national average, if you’re wondering.) A doctorate can bump the most senior teachers to nearly $82,000/year, which flies in the face of all the research showing that advanced degrees bear no relationship to student achievement, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Instead, let’s consider what could happen if this rather flat $11,000 differential were reworked to reflect real differences in experience, skill and duties:
1st year: $35,000 (not great, but pretty good for an entry-level professional job)
10th year, team lead (ultimately responsible for the learning of all students in the grade): $85,000
20th year (no extra duties): $47,682
Total for team: $167,682

Is this unreasonable? Let’s say the 20-year veteran has family obligations, such as caring for aging parents, that limit his or her ability to put in long hours beyond the school day, and the mental toll of these obligations means less bandwith for enhanced obligations at school. So let’s say the 20-year teacher has agreed to take on the same level of responsibility as the first-year teacher. There’s still a $12,682 pay differential for experience, but no one will feel shortchanged if the 10-year vet is working harder and performing at a higher level.

While most other professions make arrangements like this possible—the doctor who sees fewer patients or works in a calmer setting, the salesperson who leaves the road and takes on a behind-the-scenes role—in education, we offer no such dignity. Everyone is supposed to do equal work for experience- and degree-based pay, and any deviation from this scheme is looked on with scorn. It shouldn’t be this way. It’s time to change the structure of the profession. I’ll explore Arthur Wise’s proposal more in future posts.

What do you think?

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.