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Teachers Have It
Easy -- Not!


Too many people still regard teaching as an easy part-time job at full-time pay. In Teachers Have It Easy,the authors attack those perceptions, by citing the long hours, sacrifices, and low salaries imposed on many teachers.Included: Descriptions of some salary reform efforts.

Daniel Moulthrop

Probably at least once a day, an educator is told what an easy job teaching is -- by someone who isn't a teacher. After all, teachers make a lot of money for people who work short days and have long vacations, according to some outside the profession.

But teachers have a source of support in the book by authors Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers. The book includes anecdotes about how teachers must struggle to buy homes and support a family, while working long hours in less-than-idea conditions. Also highlighted are some areas of the country that are having success with salary reform.

One of the book's authors, Daniel Moulthrop, a former high school English teacher who is now a journalist, talked with Education World about the persistent public perceptions about the teaching profession, and efforts being made inside and outside education to change perceptions and working conditions.

Education World: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about teachers' salaries while researching this book?

Daniel Moulthrop: Actually one of the most surprising things came after the book was published -- that a large number of teachers don't see the irony in the title. We thought some people might not get it, but we didn't think it would be teachers who would miss what we assumed was a pretty obvious joke in the title.

If teachers don't immediately get the joke, then their assumption is that people who write books really do think that teaching is an easy, undemanding job. Teachers know that when they're doing their job well, it's anything but easy. What all this might mean is that many teachers continue to feel attacked and disrespected and feel as though they don't get the support from the general public -- a basic understanding of and respect for the complexity of the job, or active, helpful involvement from students' parents, or the passage of a school levy -- that would actually ensure more success for more students.

"The reality, of course, is that teaching is complex and demanding; more so, in fact, than many other adult occupations."

EW: What do you think is the most important factor in changing peoples' minds about teachers' salaries?

Moulthrop: If the goal is to change minds about teacher salaries, there's more than one factor to be taken into account. One place to start is perception, or basic understanding of what the job is that good teachers do. Outside of education, adults don't generally have a complete picture of what teachers' days are like. The understanding of teachers' work that the average layperson has is the one formed during their 13 years as a student in primary and secondary schools. From that perspective, it's a pretty cushy job. After all, it seems to the student, the students are doing all the work. The reality, of course, is that teaching is complex and demanding; more so, in fact, than many other adult occupations. As one teacher educator pointed out to us in an interview, many people can hardly handle organizing a third-grader's birthday party. Teaching a third grade class is like doing that three times a day, five days a week, and making sure all kids learn in the process.

Another big piece of teacher salary reform is that there is no one single way this happens. When teacher pay is improved in ways that appear to create better learning conditions for students, higher pay is usually tied to teacher achievement in areas of importance to the community. In Denver, Colorado, that means that good teachers who take on difficult assignments like, say, teaching bilingual fourth grade in a school with a high rate of student turnover, get paid a premium for doing that and succeeding.

In Helena, Montana, the community asked teachers to make a commitment to professional development that would have results in the classroom, not just on the resume. At the Vaughn Next Century Learning Academy in the San Fernando Valley, the school pays a premium for high performance on evaluations -- that includes self-evaluations and peer evaluations, in addition to the standard supervisory evaluation. Also, teacher attendance had been a problem at Vaughn prior to reform. To fix that, they started paying a bonus to teachers if they make it through the year without a sick day. In the end, the lesson is that salary reform can be a creative way to fix whatever problems a community finds in its schools.

EW: What are some small steps districts and schools can take to help recognize teachers' efforts and improve working conditions?

Moulthrop: The biggest recent successes in these areas have come where district and school administrators were not afraid of agreeing with teachers and their union leaders that salaries could and, they agreed, should be raised, and they were willing to give up old, combative bargaining tactics to move forward. Is that a small step? It can be. Becky Wissink, former head of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, likes to say that teacher working conditions and student learning conditions are one and the same. That suggests this isn't a battle pitting teachers against district administrators. Everyone in education -- from secretaries to teachers to school board members -- want their schools to attract and retain the very best educators so that students learn and achieve at the highest levels, and maybe it is a small step to seeing salary reform as a way to do that.

EW: Is there anything teachers themselves can do to change attitudes about their salaries and working conditions?

Moulthrop: Like administrators, teachers may find themselves asked to shift out of their traditional defensive stance in contract negotiations. What has happened in Helena and Denver indicates that rank-and-file members of both national teacher unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) are interested in helping to bring about these kinds of reforms. When administrators want to talk about salary reform, about paying teachers better for doing their work well, their biggest fear is that teachers will respond, "That's merit pay and you can't do that. It's divisive." What if teachers responded with, "That sounds interesting. Let's get all the stakeholders together and come up with some ways of paying people better that we all think are fair and good for students" That could be a very powerful response.

EW: As you point out in your book, many teachers put in long hours and do more than is required. But there are some tenured teachers who just go through the motions, knowing that they cannot be dismissed. How would making it easier to release poor teachers affect the debate on teachers' salaries?

Moulthrop: Perhaps the question ought to be how can districts use salary reform to encourage teachers who aren't working at their best to become their best again? How might districts incorporate an effective and rigorous evaluation process into that reform and then support teachers so they can meet the demands of that more rigorous evaluation? How can salary reform change the dynamics of the profession so that tenure doesn't encourage a relaxation of a professional's own standards?

There are many districts taking on salary reform and putting these questions at the center of their work. This focus puts aside the issue of firing poor teachers and assumes that all teachers want to be the best teachers they can be and want students to learn. It also assumes that teachers, like many in the labor force, will respond to economic incentives.

EW: How has resistance by teachers' unions to differentiated pay, or pay for performance, affected the level of teacher salaries?

Moulthrop: It's difficult to establish a clear cause and effect relationship here, particularly because there have been so many other factors at play. Consider the failure of government funding to keep pace with inflation, or the attractiveness of other professions, which has lured many of the best and brightest away from education. The standard union resistance to salary reform has probably led in some manner to the current stagnation in compensation. When unions don't want to discuss compensation reforms, contract negotiations are limited to cost of living adjustments, and the yearly raises teachers get remain miniscule, often hardly enough to cover the cost of post graduate credits they need to accrue to move up the salary scale. How has the traditional union response to salary reform affected teacher salaries? The short answer is, it hasn't helped much. How is that changing? If the Denver and Helena school districts are any indication, quite a lot.

This e-interview with Daniel Moulthrop is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 02/01/2006
Last updated 05/28/2009