Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teaching: "the most overcompensated profession"? Try under-appreciated and disrespected

I spent some time grading papers at Starbucks tonight. Usually, my Starbucks grading sessions are very productive, but that was definitely not the case this evening. A group of women sipping lattes on the couches in the corner were distracting me with their loud conversation about their husbands’ inadequacies. The husband-bashing was enough to distract and annoy me, but then the conversation turned to school and teachers and I became infuriated. The four women discussed their frustrations about daycare options for when school was closed or when students don’t have school because of “teacher workdays.” One woman, the ringleader bitch, if you will, complained about the existence of teacher workdays and in-service days (“why do they even need them?”). She then went on to tell her friends that “new studies show that, when you take everything into consideration, teaching is the most overcompensated profession. I mean, think about it—they get summers off, their day is over by two or three. I should just be an f***ing teacher!” (Oh, please don’t!)

As I tried to concentrate on the in-class writings I was grading, I wondered if any of these women realized what I was doing just two tables over. Off by two or three, huh? Here it is, a Saturday night, and I’m spending my time at Starbucks grading essays. Clearly I’m overcompensated to the extent that I actually have a thriving social life!

I struggled through a couple more essays—not because the writing was poor, but because I kept thinking about these women and their view of educators. These women are the parents of children in our public schools—and this is how they view teachers? Educators deal with enough negative portrayals from a number of sources, but we really need the support of parents!

I decided that I couldn’t just leave without saying something. Unable to focus enough to fairly grade any more papers, I packed up my bag and headed out, stopping by the couches on my way out:
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear your comments about teachers earlier.” I made eye contact with each of the four women but mainly focused on the one who had made all the negative comments. As I was speaking this first sentence, she looked at her friends and said, “Oh, God.”
Calm, but assertive, I continued: “I just wanted to say that the study I assume you’re referring to regarding teachers being overcompensated is very flawed. I am definitely not overcompensated, or even compensated for that matter, for the time I spend grading papers at a Starbucks on a Saturday night. And I’m definitely not fully compensated for all the hours I spend working on grading and planning at home in the evenings during the week. I would encourage you to look into the facts and spend a week, or even just a day, with a teacher to see everything we do. We work very hard for your children.”

No response. The ringleader just glared at me. Two of the women avoided eye contact. The fourth woman gave me a small smile and a nod and seemed to mouth something—a “thank you,” maybe, but I’m not quite sure. Then I left and they sat there in silence.

I knew I had to say something to defend our profession. I hope that I made these women think, but I wish I had said more. To think that teachers are overcompensated is absurd. No, “when you take everything into consideration,” teaching is not the “most overcompensated profession.” Rather, teachers are perhaps the most underappreciated, disrespected professionals in our society today. The conversation these four women were having, sadly, supports this notion. “Considering everything” to this woman meant the length of the contract-hour workday and summers off. But most teachers work well beyond the contract-hour workday. And the “summers off” benefit that non-educators like to throw at us is obnoxious. True, we may not be teaching during the summer, but many teachers spend time at conferences, some work with students in summer-enrichment programs and workshops, and many plan to teach new material and review and improve lessons. As an English teacher, I read and plan new works that will become a part of the curriculum the following school year. I also write letters of recommendation in the summer months because the school year is so hectic. I most definitely still work in the summer, just in a different way. Also, this woman’s notion of “considering everything” isn’t taking into consideration the insane pressure that many teachers and schools are under thanks to standardized teaching.

Teachers do not teach because of the amazing compensation and benefits. We teach because we care—about the children, their future, our future, and the subject matter. I teach high-school English because I’m passionate about literature and I love working with teenagers. For me, it’s the best of both worlds! I love what I do, but I surely don’t do it for the money. Teaching is a calling, really. No one goes into teaching for the money. In fact, one of the top reasons teachers leave the profession in the first five years is because of the salary. Someone would be crazy to go into teaching because of the pay! It’s a lot of work for the money that we make. I spend countless hours outside of contract-hours each week, including weekends, grading papers and planning lessons. But I really can’t see myself doing anything else. It’s a lot of work for an inadequate monetary pay-off, but the other rewards—seeing a student grasp a concept they had been struggling with, helping a student overcome a fear of speaking in front of others, seeing a student smile because of the ‘A’ he/she earned on a paper, having a student thank you for listening and understanding—this “compensation” is oh so worth it.