A Few Thoughts on Teachers and Teaching

Teachers are having a rough time of it these days.  Thanks largely to Governor Walker, the public now knows that they are responsible for the poor financial condition of most states, and probably for the recession itself.  And here we thought it was Walla Street greed, the bumbling management of such icons as General Motors, unwise and unpaid wars, and irresponsible tax cuts.  Who knew?  Well, apparently there were quite a few judging from the commentary on certain cable news channels and in letters to the editor in local papers throughout the nation.
Teachers, with their super high salaries, short work days, three month vacations, frequent school breaks, golden benefit packages and all the rest have ruined the nation.  Moreover, they are mostly incompetent and cannot be fired for poor performance.  At least that’s what I hear and read.  
When I was growing up it was common knowledge among the adults around me that those who can do, and those who can’t teach.  Men, and even women, who went into teaching lacked the ambition and intelligence for more demanding careers.  They were poorly paid and deserved no more.  If they had to take on second jobs during the summer, it was the price they paid for being teachers. 
How odd that we would trust the education of future generations to such as these.
I didn’t think much about it in grade school, but as I awoke to the gift of learning I also started paying attention to my teachers.  Most of them were teachers because they loved teaching, they loved knowledge and learning, and they loved the subjects they taught.  Pushing facts into empty heads was certainly a part of it, but more so was teaching us how to think critically.  I was a little surprised to learn that critical thinking was not much appreciated by many of the adults around me.  They seemed threatened that anyone would question the standard beliefs and values of our kind.  In my case, our kind were all white middle class midwesterners, most with rural roots.  I’m certain that the same was true elsewhere in the country, each, as scripture might say, according to their kind. 
Even now I am sometimes surprised at how thorough was the foundation of learning I received in the public school system of Hopkins, Minnesota.  Every now and then I feel a tinge of shame when I  remember how I successfully avoided taking advantage of even more learning opportunities that were there for anyone who wanted them.
Teaching is not work that many are suited for.  It takes special talent and, I believe, a sense of vocational calling.  I’m impressed that in my community the standard is for teachers to have their masters degrees, quite a few have doctorates and many are awarded national certification.  Classroom hours are prefaced by uncounted hours of preparation, followed by more uncounted hours of followup work, and supplemented by constant continuing education to stay current in rapidly changing fields. 
I have no idea what Wisconsin teachers make.  I know that around here a newly minted teacher makes enough to live in a decent apartment and drive an inexpensive used car while struggling to pay back student loans.  Experienced teachers can do fairly well, earning in the low range of what one would expect of a highly educated professional charged with the effective preparation of the next generation of American leadership.  The entire range is from the low $30s to the low $50s.  Those huge retirement benefits?  A quick look suggests an average of around $1,600 a month.  No one is going to get rich off that.  If the public employee retirement funds are in trouble it’s because legislatures have been irresponsibly and deliberately underfunding them for years.  
It is true that teachers, administrators, and school boards have not come up with a good way to audit teacher performance, but it always seems to be high on everyone’s agenda.  It is also true that some teachers’ unions have been intransigent in their bargaining to the detriment of education.  The same can be said for some school boards and communities.  In the heat of the current recession, anti teacher forces argue that communities cannot afford to be held by collective bargaining agreements, and therefore, collective bargaining must go.  Since collective bargaining agreements are exactly that, both collective and agreements, they are never cast in stone and always open to renegotiation.  
So what is the vitriol all about?  A recent letter in our local paper was from a man who was simply irate about teachers, other public employees, and their easy life.  He described himself as a retail salesperson who has never had a raise, has no retirement, no benefits, must work most holidays and has no job security.  Gee, what a goal to aim for, serfdom.

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