Monday, February 06, 2012

What is a good teacher worth?

The Heritage Institute recently wanted to compare public teacher salaries with private sector jobs and to settle once and for all the question whether teachers are over or underpaid.  To do this they looked at education level of teachers, adjusted by estimated "cognitive abilities" - How smart they are, benefits - insurance, retirement, summer vacation, and "job security".  They concluded that "public-school teachers receive compensation about 52 percent higher than their skills would otherwise garner in the private sector."

A key part of their argument is that although teachers have bachelors, masters, and in some cases doctorate degrees that their cognitive ability is lower than private sector workers with similar education level.  The authors argue that their degrees in education won't translate well to other fields  and that their "years of education may not be as valuable in the marketplace as for workers in other occupations."  Even their degree isn't as good as other majors because, "Given the relative lack of rigor of education courses, many teachers have not faced as demanding a college curriculum as other graduates." They also suggest that the smarter education majors change their minds and do not become teachers, because " Four-year graduates who became public-school teachers scored 0.23 standard deviations below [on the SAT] four-year graduates who did not become teachers."

This is hogwash.  I agree that education majors take fluff classes and they aren't on the whole good at math.  They avoid hard classes and get away with taking classes on children's literature and teaching methodology, while I struggled with organic chemistry and molecular biology.  But does "cognitive ability" make someone a better teacher? I had a lot of college professors with high cognitive ability, but couldn't teach a dog to chase a stick.  They dreaded it and hid behind powerpoint presentations and high standards to cover for poor teaching skills.  Yes, teachers get summers off.  That is a great perk.  And they have good retirement packages, and good health insurance.  If they are really making twice what they should, then why don't more people want to do it? I certainly don't want to.

What does it take to be a good teacher? It isn't necessarily what they teach, or even all how they teach, but to me how much they care.  That is hard to quantify and doesn't work in a linear fixed model.

Ms. Murr (Cassidy) 
She was my second grade teacher, and the second crush I ever had.  I was not as smitten as my friend Jeron, but I was more than willing to stay late cleaning chalkboards.  I remember being appalled to find out she was 28 or some ancient age like that, and getting married.  When she was married she invited us to the wedding.  She had a special rule for me.  I was supposed to be touching my desk at all times.  I remember dancing around it while everyone else was working hard.  She was from Georgia and her brother sent us a big box of raw peanuts to try.  We had tornado drills, which was odd for us since there had never been a tornado.  My friend and I drew a whole roll of butcher paper over the break and she accepted it gladly on our return.  She draped it all around the classroom and was impressed by the many dinosaur species we had tried to draw from the Childcraft and a dinosaur coloring book. I read Hardy Boys nonstop that year.  I loved going to school.

Mr. Burda 
My sixth grade teacher always told us he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.  This was immensely funny to him.  He cut off his thumb on accident with the paper cutter one day.  He used to read to us hours a day.  One day the principal came in while he was reading to us. The principal was furious, apparently reading out loud wasn't part of the curriculum.  He chewed Mr Burda out in front of us.  When the principal left, Mr. Burda picked up his book and said, "Now, where were we."

That was the first year in Boise, after my parents separated.  I had few friends.  I wanted to be in the Gifted and Talented Program.  I asked Mr Burda if I could go.  He took me aside at lunch and sat staring at me a moment, then said.  "No, I don't think that would be a good idea."  I wanted to know why.  He thought, and then told me he didn't think that the two boys in the GT program would be a good influence on me. (He was right about that.  The first R rated movie I ever saw was at Nate's house.)  He asked me why I wanted to join.  I told him I was bored.  He made a deal with me.  If I finished my assignments early, I could go to the library anytime and bring books back to read.  He had me do my math assignments in different bases: binary, 3, 6, 8, 11.  He had a stack of story problems and would leave one or two on my desk.  He took our class to see the solar eclipse from the astronomy department on campus.

Mrs. Olic-Hamilton
I dreaded 11th grade English.  Mrs. Olic-Hamilton was supposed to be tough and mean, and she was.  We read book after book.  At first, one every two weeks, then once a week.  We had to type our essays.  Now this seems commonplace, but at the time was near impossible for me.  I didn't have a computer.  Mrs. O-H pulled me aside and gave me an electric typewriter.  I fell asleep typing on it sometimes and had to retype the whole page.

She discussed literary theory with us.  We had to write essays using biographical or historical evidence, or deconstructionist analysis of the text.  She required first person sources.  I read letters written by Emily Dickinsen and diaries from the Civil War.  It was a revelation that publishers actually changed the punctuation and wording to make her poems "right."   That year I discovered the Anthology of Magazine Verse from the 1920's and fell in love with the Harlem Renaissance poets. Langston Hughes is still one of my favorites.  I decided that the Scarlet Letter was a response to the rise of liberalism in America and France, and Hawthorne losing his job.  I wrote a short story about the death of my cousin in a car accident - mostly fictional, yet still the best description of how I felt.

One day she asked me to stay behind.  She asked me if I could do her a favor.  Some of the other kids in the class were shy in class.  She wanted to draw them out.  Maybe, I could help by holding back.  She would call on me during key moments to keep the discussion going, but I had to be prepared.  I studied all the harder, and sat on my hands.

Dr. Mooney
Our classroom was painted floor to ceiling with quotes and pictures from books and poems. We read John Donne and T. S. Elliot, "1984", and "Steppenwolf."  Dr. Mooney started some classes by getting out a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag.  He placed it on a stool in front of the chalkboard.  Then he sat on it until the end of class, when he took it out and ate it with relish.  One wall was devoted to the "Cereal Hall of Shame." Count Chocula, BlueBerry Sunrise, Uncle Sam's Natural Laxative Cereal.  Some days he would take us to a coffee shop for class, or interrupt the discussion to listen to Neil Diamond or watch bits of Ricky Lake.  Not because he liked them, but because they were that bad.  It could only get better.  We also read a lot, 1-2 books a week, two essays a week, every week.  But where Mrs. O-H pushed scholarship, Dr. Mooney pushed clarity.  Short, clean, precise arguments.  Gripping openings.

I was trying to decide where to go to college that year.  My mom made me promise to apply to BYU, really apply, scholarships and all, even though I wanted to go far away.  I didn't feel like I fit in with the other Mormon kids and I wanted to escape.  I applied to Harvey Mudd, Oberlin College, and New York University.  I was offered a large scholarship to Oberlin and a good scholarship to BYU.  I agonized over the decision; I broke out in hives from head to toe.  I did not want to go to BYU, but I felt pulled in that direction and it made no sense to me.  Deadlines loomed and I needed to decide.  Dr. Mooney noticed, and asked me to stay.  "Tell me about it." He said.  I talked for an hour.  He made lists on the board as I talked.  In the end, he erased it all and told me he felt like I was not agonizing over the schools.  They were all good schools.  I would do well at any of them.  The money would work out.  He thought I was deciding between a lifestyle.  Did I want to live as a part of Mormon culture?  He told me he thought it a bad idea, for him, but for me?  That was the question.

I went home, I looked at myself in the mirror.  It was not a hard decision after that.  I went to BYU.

Teachers are so important, because they are there at those key crossroads for kids, and the best ones notice and help where they can.  That is worth more than cognitive ability.  Should we pay them a decent wage to do that?  I think so.  


Rhamnites said...

I absolutely agree! And what great teachers you had!

TaraLee Cook said...

I love this post. And I was fortunate to have some really great teachers. I think the problem lies in the fact that there are so many truely aweful teachers. It is so worn out to say that the system is failing, but it is. It stifles creative teachers. It quickly locks and bars any small openings of automy. Teachers who teach well are despised by their peers, punished by administration, and heckled by parents who don't agree with a "liberal" education, or just want their student to get a better grade than he/she deserves. Many teachers I had were mediocre, but for each excellent teacher I had, I experienced at least two who were horrid. Inspiring teachers are greatly undercompensated, but I don't believe that holds true for the profession as a whole.

Brian G. said...

Oh, I had horrible teachers too. Mr Stubblefield is at the top of that list. He used to pick on students and belittle them. I got kicked out of class for being belligerent to him. He also used put all of the cheerleaders in the front row. Creepy. I was always in trouble in fifth grade and was told that I was not part of her class and she refused to acknowledge my existence most of the year. Mr Ball my orchestra teacher in 7th grade used to get angry and throw his baton at us. There were teachers that were kicked out because they slept with students. Ones with no patience. I had a horrible seminary teacher that told my friend she was going to be shut out of heaven because her mom was not a member and living the gospel.
But, there are so many good ones. All of them deserve to make a living wage. If you cut public school teachers salaries too many good ones will have to do something else, because heck they have bills and families too.

Bonnie said...

How I wish I had had the high school teachers you wrote about. Education was in trouble in Las Vegas when I was in high school;it was the time of cross-town busing and integration. I'm not saying it was all the fault of the students bused to our school, but the reality was there were so many students who didn't care or want to learn in the classrooms. There were dedicated teachers, but the requirement to accommodate all the students tied the teachers' hands to a certain extent even in the "advanced" classes I took. Bless Mr. Carver and his list of 20 weekly vocabulary words and our study of classic and modern tragedies. I remember the plodding pace and wonder how much more he would have liked to offer us!

Those that can truly teach earn every penny we can pay them--and probably deserve a great deal more!

Brenda in DC said...

Thank you Brian.

Erica said...

I will admit that I was one of those college kids who didn't major in education because it was too fluff-- I was not at college to get my MRS.

But I find it funny that no matter what my focus in life-long learning has been, be it cooking, exercise, or dance, I have had a desire to share and teach it to others. (I guess teaching is my calling in life)

I can't believe that the ability to break down a concept into pieces that others can understand and digest -- then inspire others to learn it and use it-- is at a lower cognitive level than a person who researches complex ideas. I disagree with the research findings.


Becca said...

Oh, Brian, this is wonderful! Thanks for sharing about your amazing teachers. When I read your first paragraph about teachers being overpaid, I was like, "Wha?!" So glad we (as usual) see eye to eye.

Did your teacher cut his thumb off with the paper cutter while you were his student? That's the image I have going through my head.

Brian G. said...

He did. He was in the back prepping for class just before the bell and suddenly ran for the door with his hand in a rag and thumb in a baggie. The principal subbed that day and then they sewed the thumb back on.

Charlotte said...

The best teacher I had was my AP Chemistry teacher. He retired from teaching in his early 50's and became a fly-fishing guide in Island Park. Jon and I ran into him at a burger joint up there after we were married. I always thought it was a shame that he didn't keep teaching because the school and the students really needed him, but alas, he could make more money fishing. Who can really blame him?

I often think about whether or not I would have what it takes to be a great teacher. It would be a worthy pursuit.

jon said...

I had a crush on Mrs. Cassidy too. She was hot.

Did you ever have Mr. Rice for math? I memorized 9 digits for the square roots 1-10 just to drive him crazy because he always accused me of cheating. That way I could give 'calculator' answers without using one. He would get so mad that he couldn't catch me cheating that he would throw a temper tantrum and storm out of class. I loved it, every minute. I worked really hard to learn math just to terrorize him. It was even better than terrorizing my brothers.

Jon said...

check this out.