EMPATHY: TEACHER VOICE
By Carrie Markel
We've shared the above video before on our social media channels, but it seems appropriate that on Superbowl Sunday, when over 150 million people around the world are expected to watch the New England Patriots face off against the Seattle Seahawks, and where 60-second advertisements are worth $8 million a pop, that we should truly wonder what would happen if we treated our teachers like football stars.
Smoke machines and cheers aside, a striking way to consider this much-debated question is to look at the economics of the teaching profession. The median teacher salary in the United States is about $54,000 per year compared to the $1.9 million salary of an NFL player. (To really drive home where we place value in our society, the Business Insider article where this salary average was pulled from was titled "How badly NFL players get paid." Allow irony to ensue).
Even more striking is the economic impact a teacher can have with such an average salary: a top teacher in the United States can increase the earnings of their students by $1.5 million over the course of those students' careers.
It may beg the obvious to ask, well, why don't we pay teachers more? Maybe we couldn't pay them quite like a football player. But would higher pay not incentivize the maturation of top teachers and thereby correlate to higher student achievement and an increase in their life outcomes?
The question is a valid one and several studies have attempted to answer it with mixed results. Harvard's Roland Fryer, the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt, and UC San Diego's Sally Sadoff, found that merit pay for teachers resulted in definitive increases in student achievement. And yet, a similar study conducted in 2007-2009 by Vanderbilt University found no overall improvement in student outcomes with teachers being offered merit pay.
Before you become too deflated (puns aside) considering these inconclusive studies, consider that this debate centers upon an isolated point in time in a teacher's career: they were already in the classroom when these studies were conducted.
Instead, there is a different perspective we must view when we discuss elevating teacher status if we are to see the same earth-shaking, sold-out stadium crowds rallying around education as we will for football this Sunday:
We must value our teachers before they even become teachers.
Consider: The first time a child shows any interest in a sport, they are most often encouraged to pursue it with fervor. Practice, drills, camps - there is no end to the development that kids in the United States can receive for their athletic abilities. But when a child shows an uncanny ability to conceptualize and describe difficult theories, or guide others through complicated tasks, rarely are they encouraged to develop themselves as an educator. Instead, they are told to use their intellectual capabilities to become lawyers, doctors, bankers, and many other things much more lucrative.
The lack of value we place upon educators, then, starts long before they ever reach a classroom where they experience long hours, middling results, and little pay. Rather, from a young age, children are implicitly told that the profession of the person who teaches them every day has little value compared to that of a football star, a lawyer, a doctor.
We see this stark gap of expectations dramatically in college graduates where only 23% of our nation's teachers graduate at the top third of their college class, while 47% come from the bottom third (M. Di Carlo, Albert Shanker Institute). This is not to say that 47% of our nation's teachers are inadequate - it illustrates the lack of incentives that exist for our undergraduates to pursue teaching as a career when it has been de-professionalized long before that student reaches college.
Nor does this problem disappear once in the classroom. Studies find that nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession before their 5th year. (This rate is even higher in Kansas City, where 70% will leave before year 5 of teaching). There is something larger at play here.
In short, there is no feedback loop that incentivizes human talent to approach teaching as a career with the same seriousness that we consider other professional occupations. There are an abundance of coding camps for computer science development, a range of workshops in STEAM areas to focus a child's talents, even writing workshops for those aspiring to live as poor intellectuals in a small studio apartment in New York for a brief moment during their twenties. But where is the cycle of maturation, progression, and reinforcement to spur future educators along before they are entrusted with the minds of our youth?
Beyond new programs, restructuring of teacher development programs and ongoing professional development, I believe there is a much simpler solution you can implement as early as tomorrow:
Treat a teacher like you would if Tom Brady or Marshawn Lynch were to walk into your classroom.
Beyond making that teacher's day, the stronger message you will send is the one to the students sitting in that classroom: teachers are valuable - why don't you become one?