Some of the worst-paid professions in the United States surround the education system. Teachers. Librarians. Paraprofessional support staff. You don’t go into the education field for the money — it’s dubious that anyone ever did — but for the reward of teaching the next generation. That said, you also don’t go into the system to be bankrupted by student loans, shown the cold shoulder, and totally devalued by society, the government, and your community. Intrinsic psychological rewards don’t pay the rent or keep you fed, and telling teachers that the ‘reward’ of education should be enough to satisfy them is insulting and demeaning, as well as a telling assessment of the importance of education in general.
Getting an MLS degree takes a lot of work. Librarians are meticulously trained and spend a lot of time in school dedicating themselves to learning the rich and complicated details of administering libraries, curating collections, helping people with research, and much, much more — what goes on behind the scenes at libraries is immense and totally unfamiliar to people who aren’t librarians or staff assistants. Yet, the MLS is routinely ranked as the worst master’s degree for jobs in terms of pay, benefits, and job security — even though this skilled profession is critical and it requires extensive training.
Likewise, becoming a teacher or paraprofessional is a process of years of training. While you can get a substitute teaching certificate relatively easily, becoming an education professional is a great deal of work. In addition to your training, you have to undergo a teaching practicum, where you teach under supervision in a real classroom. Why the practicum? Because if you mess up teaching, it has real-world, lasting implications — and before you can be certified, the state wants to make absolutely sure that you know what you’re doing and you’re prepared to handle a classroom full of kids.
People who enter the education field, in other words, make a serious investment of both time and money as they pay for training and spend years developing professional skills. In a comparable field, like medicine, people are rewarded not just with the pleasure of making a difference in people’s lives, but with the tangible reward of good pay, benefits, and social support. By and large, doctors earn reasonable pay, even when they’re working for nonprofit organisations. While physicians and attorneys are encouraged to donate pro bono time to their communities as a form of civic engagement, that’s not the same thing as being systematically underpaid — and a few hours, days, or even weeks (as in the case of doctors who travel to the Global South to train physicians in lifesaving or lifechanging procedures), isn’t the same thing as being routinely underpaid and retained without benefits and with unstable job prospects.
For teachers on the K-12 level, for librarians, for the staffers who back them up, low pay is the norm. Many have to provide their own basic classroom supplies, like pens, pencils, paper, and supplies for art (a low blow for teachers who barely earn enough to support themselves). Many are on contracts which are up for renewal each year — a teacher may work through the year, and then wait in a state of suspension to determine whether she’ll have a job during the next school year. K-12 educators, librarians, and support professionals don’t receive pay or unemployment benefits during the summer months, with some being forced to take on second jobs to support themselves — and, sometimes, to save up money for the school year.
In other words, we teach educators and the field as a whole like crap. While there’s a lot to love about teaching and related activities, which is why so many people are so passionate about it, the pay definitely doesn’t rank very high up there. And it should. Because we should be paying education professionals very, very well, as it represents an incredibly smart investment. If a teacher handles three 20 student classes a day (a very optimistic number given classroom overcrowding and the load put on teachers) in middle school and high school, or a younger class of 20 students in lower grades that stay with the same teacher throughout the day, that represents a lot of young people, most of whom are going to grow up to be adults. For each dollar put into the teacher’s paycheque, that’s a tremendous return — 20-60 people who are ultimately going to enter a broad variety of fields. Maybe they’ll be highly trained professionals. Maybe they’ll be highly skilled workers — the linepeople we rely on to keep the lights on. Maybe they’ll be critical service and utility workers — garbage collectors, the waiter who gives you advice at a restaurant, the guy who does your dishes in the back. All of these people are a fundamental and important part of society — and all of them need to be educated. (Yes, even the dishwasher, because we all have a right to an education, and that dishwasher has a right to pursue future careers, not to remain trapped behind a hot sink, hands and lips chapping in the backsplash.)
By and large, society doesn’t seem to realize the cutting education spending and generally not investing in education is a terrible deal. It’s a terrible deal intrinsically because people deserve to be paid well so they can support themselves and enjoy a decent standard of living. It’s also a terrible idea socially because everyone deserves an education — and because we are going to be relying on people like doctors, nurses, train conductors, attorneys, electricians, and, yes, teachers in the future, so we need to invest in them now to ensure that they’re be available. It’s also just a terrible idea on a pure economic level: It costs way less to invest in maintaining a stable, happy teaching profession now than it will to pick up the pieces later. Investing in teachers results in a huge return socially and financially.
So why don’t we get it? Why aren’t we supporting teachers? Why is this so collectively difficult?
Image: Colored Mechanical Pencils, Marilyn Acosta, Flickr