Op-Ed: Why Teachers’ Pay Is Complicated

Ultimately, teacher pay needs to be tied to performance

This is in response to a recent September 13, 2018 article in Time magazine: ‘I Work 3 Jobs And Donate Blood Plasma to Pay the Bills.’ This Is What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in America.

I’ve worked with nearly 6000 teachers over the past 15 years. I was a teacher myself. I admire the profession. So, for me, supporting the idea that teachers should be paid a decent professional wage and live far above the poverty line is an easy position to take. It’s one of society’s most demanding jobs. Try facing 150 children each day and doing something productive with them. That’s the daily challenge, and most people would avoid it at all costs—unless they are compelled by the shining sense of service and commitment that most educators exhibit.

But ultimately, pay needs to be tied to performance. I don’t mean this in the current sense, as in the debate over whether salaries should be tied to test scores. In fact, that debate is embedded in a much larger, more pressing issue: The school system itself does not encourage the level of professionalism practiced in other industries. Teaching to a test based on rigid standards encourages routine behavior. Teaching students to memorize and regurgitate does not spur creativity. Adhering to pacing guides and packaged curriculum limits imagination and rewards ordinary thinking.

Let me say it this way: Let’s pay teachers like true professionals but recognize that to match the profile of other professionals today, the teaching profession needs to upgrade itself by changing the rules and culture of schools. That shift starts with giving up the worn out idea that the number of years in the classroom automatically equates to expertise. A teacher can build on 30 years of experience or repeat one year of experience 30 times. Pay will be the same.

Another shift? Martyrdom should not be a motivator. Teachers should not expect better pay just because they are willing to ‘put up’ with those 150 kids each day. Neither should the public settle for that. Instead, let’s develop a profile of a successful 21st Century educator equipped to handle the challenges of transformation, including the shift to project based learning, inquiry, design thinking, and maker spaces. Rather than ‘managing’ classrooms and ‘delivering’ curriculum, the new requisite skill set includes agility, sensitivity, people expertise, openness, planning and design skills, and the habits and skills associated with deep collaboration.

These forward-leaning ideas have already begun to produce a new generation of amazing, creative educators who fit perfectly with the definition of the modern professional. But these skills will not be enough. The current curriculum in American schools is based on a template from the 1890’s. The typical teacher ‘professional’ accepts the state of education as fate or as an issue to be resolved by the ‘administration’. The mindset of the modern professional is the opposite: Take responsibility for the organization a whole, think strategically, and contribute to constant improvement.

This tells us that, if teachers wish to be true professionals, they need to be far more engaged in the conversation about school transformation, and then push upwards on the system rather than waiting for change to happen. They should demonstrate a commitment to innovation and be proactive. They need to be a self-learner. Teachers undergo constant professional development, but nearly all of it revolves around institutional mandates to learn the latest strategy for conducting education as it always been done. But the professional of today is an agile learner alert for new opportunities for advancement and growth. They are expected to show discontent with the system when it’s clear it doesn’t work. We need that from our teachers.

The bottom line? If we learn to value teachers as innovators, leaders, and open-minded learners, we will see fundamental change. The teaching force will reinvent itself, and higher pay will follow.

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