11/20/10

Another Reason We Fail to Educate

OK, we've all discussed the usual culprits out the ying-yang: Not all kids are adequately prepared for school,we're trying to mainstream too many special-needs kids, parents don't stay connected with their kids' schooling, "No Child Left Behind" makes everyone teach to the test (and doesn't award 'E' for effort), the teacher's unions make it impossible to fire poor performers, there's never enough money provided by government... Did I miss any?


Here's a new wrinkle that occurs to me: we're preventing our teachers from leaving.

Without an explanation, you could read any of a number of things into that, but here's where I'm coming from - Many people find out "when they grow up" that they really want to be doing something else. Maybe their profession was a poor pick from the start, or maybe, their interests have ripened and matured and lead in another direction.  Or they retire early, and then discover they want to try something completely different, just to keep their hand in, make some money, and stay relevant.

I've seen this in my own family. My mother trained as an RN and worked half a career at it. Then she went back to school for a library science degree and was a school librarian until she retired. My dad was a civilian engineer in the Engineer Research & Development Laboratory at Ft. Belvoir, VA. He retired early, and a couple years later satisfied an old itch to try surveying by taking a job in a county surveyor's office, until he died just before he turned 61. I spent a career in chemical research and manufacturing, retired early, and am now seeing about starting a second career in recording audio books.

I know lots of the movement between jobs/careers is driven by technology advances and market forces. How many lamplighters or trolley conductors are employed these days? And how many textile mill workers have had to retrain as something else as a result of the industry disappearing offshore?

But how about teachers? Teaching is the ultimate portable profession, because everywhere you go, short of the South Pole (and maybe there!) people are needed to teach/instruct/train/educate other people. So teaching is a good choice if you want to work in a specific place, or want to work wherever you find yourself. It mates well to a spouse with an itinerant profession, like the military, or one that restricts its practice to only certain places, like mining. And although we improve classroom technology with smart boards and such, we still rely on humans to carry much of the load of teaching.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Forget that old saw! Plenty of capable people take up teaching for the reasons above, or because they love working with kids, or - any of a bunch of reasons. But here's our little gotcha: when you decide to become a teacher, we make it darned tough to change your mind.

While the rest of the country was enduring downsizing, re-engineering, and the change from the traditional pension to 401K's - we insulated our teachers from most of it. If they were bright enough to survive X years of teaching at the early end of their career, they were swept into systems of tenure or into teacher's unions where only the direst circumstances would threaten their jobs. They were promised and awarded valuable benefits that had virtually disappeared from the working world outside of government. Work thirty years and get a pension. Get health care for life. Get opportunities for massively increased pay, if you choose to work more after retirement; I know where you can pick a year's salary for 30 days work post-retirement (I have a family member who enjoys that perk).

Most thoughtful persons agree that we undervalue teachers with respect to pay. As direct shapers of the next generation of workers, teachers have a huge impact on our country, yet we usually don't pay them as if they did. Part of this is explained away by the fact we continue to live with the vestiges of America's agricultural past, where children had to be released from their studies in the summer to help their parents get the crops in. In spite of our urbanized present, we still stick (largely) to this old practice of making education a 9-month-a-year endeavor. There is no doubt that students AND teachers like and appreciate a 3-month break from seeing each other. But paying a 9-month salary means that too many teachers need a second income in the family to live at a middle-class level.

We've added and kept the end-of-career perks noted above to retain teachers in the profession. My opinion is that we can no longer afford to use that device to aid retention. Various states are already flirting with reneging on their contracts with teachers (NJ comes to mind) because they are unsustainable. The accumulated promises far outweigh the money set aside to pay them. (Why? That's politics - and perhaps the focus of a future post!)

Why don't teachers worn out by the succession of education "initiatives" like "No Child Left Behind", worn out by budget cuts for basic supplies they feel compelled to purchase out of their own pockets, or just plain worn out from all the abrasion of dealing with unruly, parents-don't-care kids, leave and take a "real job" somewhere else? Why, when teachers feel a need to start a fresh career doing something else, do they suck it up and stay?

It's because we have too thoroughly given them incentive to stay.

They have "so many" years toward their thirty that they feel they can't afford to throw away all the promises. Even when the promises may well turn out to be hollow.

Remember the beginning of this post? People often change course, make a fresh start, rejuvenate their flagging enthusiasm with a mid-life career change... except in teaching. Teachers are trapped by the promises. Even if they desperately want "out!" of the classroom, those promises stick their feet to the floor. And there is no corresponding incentive to draw in mature workers from the outside, so it is imperative that experienced teachers be retained.

What is my solution?
  • Make teaching a year-round job, so that it commands a 12-month salary. (Do that any way practical! Do away with summer vacations, if necessary, or stagger school sessions on a 4-session per year schedule so that teachers can work even if the students get 3 months off.)
  • Evaluate teaching at all the various levels against productive work in the private sector. 
  • Establish a competitive market salary for someone doing equivalent work at an equivalent level of experience and personal education.
  • PAY at the competitive salary rate.
  • GIVE BENEFITS in accord with private norms.

This will allow the free flow of talent out AND IN to teaching. Retraining to take up a new profession is normal, so you can still expect a midlife changer to get education credentials to become a teacher. But paying the 12-month salary makes teaching a desirable profession for someone who is tired of the routine in industry or commerce. And getting seasoned people who have invested half a career in another field gives new emphasis in schools, because these people have seen what works and what doesn't work.

That's it in a nutshell, folks. We get better, more motivated people in charge of our kids' education when we put teaching on a par with other professions, and don't stack on inducements that only kick in after 30 years!

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