Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Difficulty of Teaching

In the Wisconsin State Journal today, UW-Platteville professors Arthur Ranney and Nancy Turner published a well-written, very straightforward explanation of the difficulties of being a professor on a university campus.

I was once a doctoral student myself, and I can attest to the workload that is involved in attaining a Ph.D. As a grad student, I also witnessed firsthand the level of work that comes with a professorship; if, that is, you’re lucky enough to earn one. There aren’t many out there, and most newly-minted doctorates need to toil at least a couple of years crisscrossing the country accepting one-year adjunct positions that require huge teaching loads on measly pay, all the while keeping up their research, before they find that coveted tenure-track assistant professorship (some never do find one, in large part because adjunct positions are quickly replacing tenure-track ones at cash-strapped public universities). And from there it’s three to five years, a strong teaching record, numerous hours of unquestioning committee work, and often a book publication later before you actually achieve tenure.

I’ve also taught at a high school for a year, which is no walk in the park either. While I clocked in more hours as a doctoral student on a weekly basis, my time as a high school teacher was probably just as grueling. Plus, as a grad student I could understand my $13,000 salary—after all, I didn’t pay a dime in tuition and the excellent health care package I received through the University of Minnesota didn’t cost me a thing. As a 0.70 FTE teacher, who easily clocked in 40-50 hours of work per week, it was much harder to swallow my $21,000 salary and pro-rated monthly health insurance premiums.

While I didn’t leave teaching because of the poor salary (visit here to see why I left), the lack of money is a big reason why I probably won’t ever go back into K-12 teaching—at least on a full-time basis. I don’t get paid that much more in my current position, but my workload is significantly less, even though I’m now at 1.0 FTE. You could even factor in summers off and it still wouldn’t matter—I do less work now than as a 0.70 FTE high school teacher. Most significant to that is in my current position the work stays at the office. When you’re a teacher, that’s just not possible—nearly every night and weekend something is coming home, most of the time in your workbag and always on your mind. Plus, there is virtually no cap on my salary now that I’m not a teacher. And I don’t even need to complete graduate school credits to keep my position or rise up faster on the pay scale, which I would need to do as a teacher.

We certainly have a right to question how teachers go about doing their job and how our educational system is structured. In fact, that’s our obligation as a public. But, as far as I’m concerned, teachers at all levels earn every penny they get paid and in most cases they deserve more. Sure, some people have no business in education and they don’t necessarily earn their pay, but that is the exception to the rule. Perhaps we should discuss ways to easily spot those people and get them out of their teaching positions—but I think it’s more important to consider what we can do to get good people into teaching and keep the good ones who are there in the field. Part of that, no doubt, is better compensation.

A little more respect from some politicians and some of the public wouldn’t hurt, either. I won't name any names, but we all know who you are.

UPDATE: I was contacted by Kris Collett of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association who let me know about a great program in the MPS district called Teacher Evaluation and Mentoring (TEAM). Programs like these are used to identify struggling teachers and assist them to first become more effective and second, if that doesn't work, potentially steer them toward another career if teaching just isn't a good fit. Where I taught, in fact, it was mandatory for first and second year teachers to participate in a mentoring program with another teacher from within the school and an outside mentor.

So it's clear teachers unions, in cooperation with school districts, are working toward identifying teachers who are having difficulties and exploring ways to help them. Not only is it bad for students when there's a teacher who is struggling or one who really shouldn't be teaching at all--those situations also make life more difficult for the other teachers in the school, as well.

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