Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Addressing Some Perennial Misconceptions About Teaching

I was perusing the Twitters recently when I came across a link to an article about Matt Damon getting irritated at a "Save Our Schools" rally, during which he editorialized rather vociferously that teachers make a "shitty" salary. The article seeks to discredit Mr. Damon's assessment of teachers' pay, noting that the national average salary of a public school teacher is a respectable $53,000. More interestingly, however, is that the aforementioned article links to yet another, which purports to have data on things like working hours and health/retirement benefits for teachers. I do not intend to refute or comment on both of these articles point-by-point; they are both rather lengthy, and frankly there is neither sufficient energy in me to do that nor patience and interest in you to read it. Instead, I will consider these two articles the impetus for writing a general treatise on the misconceptions about my occupation which seem to surface all too often.

Before I get to the meat of the thing, I offer a word of caution about generalizing. "Public high school teacher" is what we all are, but the particulars of our situation will vary rather wildly depending on location. Schools are governed by their principals, districts, school boards, state governments, and the federal government... all at the same time. What a teacher can be paid, what hours he must work, how much time off he can take... all of these things will be different for everyone. Some will work more hours for less money, and vice-versa. It's a large field with a lot of different philosophies and particulars. Lumping us all together in statements like "teachers are all overpaid/underpaid/awesome/worsethanHitler..." are fairly myopic and irresponsible. I digress.

Misconception the First: Salary

I suppose I can't argue with statistics; if some article says the average is $53,000, then that must be what it is. The article does go on, however, to note that the average national salary for a male with a Bachelor's degree is $89,000. That's a pretty sobering figure, especially after I inform you that I also have a Master's degree, and my salary is still well short of that $53,000 figure. In fact, according to the current negotiated salary rates at my school, that "national average" teacher has a Master's degree and 8 years' experience. 
Look, nobody goes into teaching for the money. No sane person, anyway. I do know several teachers who genuinely don't care about the money; they'd be teaching no matter what, because it's the sort of job that can be fulfilling in a way that most other jobs can't. I live well enough that I don't have a lot to complain about. I don't have to support anyone but myself though; I would not be able to live comfortably on my salary if I had a mooching wife and kids. The money isn't terrible, really. It's adequate, reasonable, sufficient, whatever. I do believe that I'm not being fairly compensated for my level of education; I'm basically overqualified for my job.
Another point that people outside of teaching tend not to think about is earning potential. Basically, there isn't any. If I stay at my school for the rest of my working life and retire, I will earn a modest "step increase" every year. There are no big promotions, no bonuses. It's not like many careers where you put in your time as an intern or do shit work to get some experience, and then you can go and make the big bucks. There are no big bucks. An employee at my school with a Ph.D. and 25 years' experience will earn around $90,000 - barely more than the "average" male with no advanced degree at all. I don't think that I can quite agree with Matt Damon's grim view of my earnings, but I do thank him for his support. I do think I deserve to be paid better than I am, but I'm not about to go on camera and shout about it. 

Misconception the Second: Hours

This is an irritating one. The idea is that teachers work shorter-than-usual hours for the same compensation as a comparable non-teacher. The second of the two articles tries to quantify this in order to determine how many hours the average teacher "works" every week. The problem with this is that it's very difficult to get an accurate grasp of the reality of the matter, when the only observable figure is how long teachers are in the building. My contract says that I have to be in the building by 7:30 am, and I can't leave until 2:30 pm. I get 25 minutes for lunch, leaving a 6.5 hour work day and a 32.5 hour work week. On those figures alone, yes, we do seem to have it easy. I should probably add that, at my school at least, the percentage of teachers who actually keep those hours every day is something like 0%. If I show up at 7:30, I'm guaranteed to have a rough time finding a parking spot, and leaving at 2:30 is basically impossible unless I've been working feverishly towards that as a personal goal for that day.
We do have to be at school for several annoying occasions which are not voluntary and for which we are not compensated. There are faculty and department meetings every month. There are parent-teacher conferences several times a year. At my school, each teacher must chaperon four after-school activities, which could even include following the baseball team to an away game somewhere else in the county on a Saturday.
The number of hours a teacher works is another one of these things that will vary wildly. A social studies teacher who has taught the same American Government course 10 times already probably doesn't need to do that much prep work outside of those 32.5 hours, whereas someone teaching a new subject might be putting in several hours each day just to prepare the lessons. Some work with other teachers who teach the same course and can share resources, others are on their own. Sometimes curriculum gets rewritten and suddenly everything you worked on before is now obsolete or irrelevant. All I can say is what I've seen in my few short years of experience as a teacher: teachers are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I've ever met. They're generally quite proud of their work, and they care if they're doing a good job or not. The district says the work week is 32.5 hours; the teachers decide for themselves what the actual figure is going to be every week. Don't misunderstand - there certainly are lazy, useless, apathetic teachers out there. They are the exception, not the rule.

Misconception the Third: Summers Off

Yes, teachers get their summers off. Totally awesome! ORLY? Of course it's nice to have a two month break where you don't have to go to work. This is only half of the story, however. Different schools have different ways of dealing with this; for me, as a 10-month employee, it basically means that I'm unemployed for two months. I don't get a paycheck the entire month of July or August. Some schools offer the option to have one's 10-month salary paid equally over the full year; this option does not exist for me. Rather, I have to do the budgeting myself, making sure to save some money from each paycheck so that I can pay my bills over the summer.  The prospect of having to go two months every year without having any income is an uncomfortable thing.
Having a long summer break also basically means that teachers get no significant paid vacation days during the school year. I only get three days a year which I can request off and not be hassled or asked for documentation about why I wasn't at work. If I want two of those days to be consecutive, I need special permission, and if I want any of those days to come directly after a holiday, the superintendent gets involved. (Not an exaggeration.) I do have available sick days of course, but only a couple of these can be used before the school wants to see a doctor's note, or you'll lose your pay for those days. Sick time rolls over from year to year, but the three personal days do not - three days is the most no-questions-asked time off I can ever have in a year. This means that if I want to go on some sort of vacation, it has to be when the school is already closed for a holiday. There's really no chance of taking several days off while the school is open, unless I'd like a smaller paycheck that week.
Another annoyance about being a teacher is that calling in sick is such a hassle that it's almost not even worth it, unless you're really so sick that going to work would be physically impossible. It's obviously not like college where the prof just puts a note on the door and everyone goes home; if I'm gone, a substitute has to be called in, and it's my responsibility to have already made plans for the substitute to keep the kids busy all day. This usually means finding or making some sort of self-contained activity which I have to photocopy and put into folders for each class. Calling in sick means a set of these plans gets used, so I have to take the time to create a new set in case I'm absent again. The substitutes also have to be paid, so towards the end of the year when the annual budget for subs starts to dry up, you really get the evil eye for calling off. There have honestly been times when I've woken up not feeling too great, but calling off seemed such a hassle that I just said "fuck it, I'll just go to work and be miserable."
We do also have the luxury of a fairly long break at Christmas (basically whatever time is between that and the new year) and a week for Spring Break. Remember how great it was as a kid to get all that time off? Let me assure you in the most serious way possible that teachers need the break way more than the students do.

Misconception the Fourth: Teaching is an Easy Job

Sometimes I really wonder what people think teachers do all day. Perhaps you really did have teachers who did absolutely nothing but hand you a worksheet while they drank coffee and read the newspaper. I guess those were the good ol' days. I'm expected to have an engaging lesson planned each and every day for each and every class. That means a small amount of lecture and a large amount of student-centered activities. Showing a movie is an absolute no-no, not even at Christmas or at the end of the year when there's nothing to do. Who do you think decided what to do every day, every week, every month, so that all the material was covered by the end of the year? Who made all those worksheets, tests, quizzes, and homework assignments? Who graded them? Wrote comments on your papers? Taught you how to do basically everything you know how to do, including read and write?
This is a stressful occupation. I don't mean to imply that other vocations are not - surely every job can be stressful in its own way. It's physically and mentally exhausting to be directly responsible for the education of over a hundred children every day. Besides the kids, there are also their parents, who can frequently be worse than the kids themselves, and the administration. There's also the day itself - I doubt very seriously that any other job outside of the armed forces is as rigidly regimented. Everything happens by the almighty bell, the only thing the kids do actually listen to consistently. Everything happens at exactly the same time, every day. If I'm having a crappy morning and I'd like to go to Panera, or Starbucks, or just go outside and kick a pigeon in frustration, I can't. I can't even go to the bathroom during class unless I call someone else to cover for me, because we're not permitted to leave our rooms unattended for any reason. Lunch is the same time every day, whether you're hungry or not, and unless you have lunch during your planning period, there's no time to leave the building. If I do leave the building, someone needs to know when I left and when I'll be back, and if I'm gone longer than an hour, it needs to come out of my sick time. This sort of complete inflexibility would drive some people insane.


I could go on much more than I have on each of these points. It's really something that lends itself well to a discussion rather than a ranty blog post. I would encourage anyone who isn't a teacher to talk to one sometime, just about what it's like, or ask to hear some of the horror stories. Either way, you'll learn a lot or get some cheap laughs out of it. I would encourage everyone to have some semblance of "the facts" in mind when making blanket statements about teachers, especially regarding any of the things I've mentioned above. It's a very difficult and very necessary job that we do, and the fact of the matter is that you probably couldn't do it. Don't take it personally - I might not be able to do your job either. It just takes a very specific sort of person to be a teacher, even a bad one, and many simply don't make it. Even some who really thought they wanted to teach.

I've tried to add a fair sprinkling of perspective to some of these popular sentiments spouted ignorantly about or against teachers. I'm not the sort of person who gets so worked up about this that I'm going to start picketing and rioting and lamenting about the utterly deplorable state of affairs that is being a public school teacher. If, however, you insist on telling me all about how easy I have it, I may tell you to fuck off. :) Just saying.


  1. The bell is the worst, man. I used to stare at the clock in horror, literally counting down the seconds until I knew I would hear the rumbling of a thousand feet and the smashing shut of a thousand lockers. I'm not sure what your commute is like, but for me commuting to Paul the clock even extended to the commute. After a year, you learn the traffic light math and you realize literally your entire day is dictated by the tick of a clock you don't control.

    One of the things I think most people don't realize about their own job is how much dicking around they do. How much does the average person in a cubicle ACTUALLY spend working a day. If they have, let's say, an 8 hour day, the average person guaranteed spends 2 hours checking Facebook, email, going for smoke breaks, whatever the poison. No one works 8 hours in an 8 hour shift. Doubtful that most actually do the 6.5 that you count for your day, and absolutely impossible (unless you're a surgeon or something) that the average person needs to be as focused, in control, and infallible as the average teacher does in those 6.5 hours. Being strong and in control, while still understanding and whatever they politically correctly call not choking the crap out of kids for 6.5 hours... No other profession on earth has to deal with that. 50k is an insult to the amount of work that a good, or even, as you say, a bad, teacher does over the course of a year.

  2. +1 on the dicking around point, Ioscius

  3. -1 on the horrendous vocative.

  4. English lacks the vocative case, o Iosci.

  5. Thanks to bad Latin teachers like you, yeah.