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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What Keeps Teachers Teaching

Sara Bernard

Journalist

A salient theme grew out of the responses to two recent Edutopia Poll questions, "What will do the most to keep teachers in the profession?" and "Should teachers receive incentive pay for improving student performance?" posted on October 4 and November 7 respectively -- respect.

In the current educational climate, according to many who commented, respect for educator expertise on the part of both the government and the public is sorely lacking. This lack manifests itself in high teacher-dropout rates (50 percent during the first five years, the National Education Association reports) and, some poll participants note, unfair federal legislation such as the Teacher Incentive Fund, which selectively rewards teachers with cash bonuses based on student performance.

Although not all respondents to the November 7 incentive-pay poll question feel that this legislation is unfair ("Teachers who put in extra time and effort and see results from those should be rewarded," writes Sean Blenkhorn, director of technology at a school in Ferndale, Michigan), a majority suggest that many factors contribute to student achievement, and that this kind of financial incentive is just another way to straitjacket teachers into responsibility for successes or failures not entirely within their control.

"Although we are at the bottom of the food chain in education, we get all the blame," writes Bonnie Bracey Sutton, a teacher in Washington, DC, who also contributes to Spiral Notebook, and many others agreed with this feeling: Teachers are often -- and particularly right now -- scapegoats for public education's biggest problems.

"Education is always something that needs to be 'fixed,'" one respondent contends, for instance. "Politicians, community leaders, and even parents are telling us what we're doing wrong. I'm tired of taking the blame when I put in countless hours and have made a difference in children's lives!"

It's no wonder, then, that so many teachers leave the profession early on, some respondents say. Teaching is not only difficult but also constantly undergoes fierce scrutiny and criticism from all sides. "I for one am tired of working in a low-performing school where I am disrespected by students, parents, and administrators," writes Rayne Bell, a remedial-reading teacher in Decatur, Georgia. "There are too many variables that as a teacher I have no control over."

What is lacking here? The encouragement, support, and value for the profession necessary for anyone in any career, participants claim. "Perhaps what would draw more people into education and keep them would be the recognition that what they know and do is valuable," writes Douglas Hyde, a library-media specialist in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Similarly, another participant comments, "I think what teachers really need is the support of the public."

This kind of value and support, or lack thereof, is also represented financially. Case in point: emphasizing financial incentives designed to reward some teachers and not others, rather than placing a higher value on the teaching profession in general by offering more competitive compensation. "Classroom teachers must feel that they are valued as professionals and individuals," affirms Eric Feder, director of information technology at Academy School District 20, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and, "in our society, that begins with the size of the paycheck."

Indeed, in numbers of votes, winning results for both polls indicate a need for higher teacher salaries. Though most participants voted for the October 4 poll choice "Increase teacher salaries and/or institute merit-based financial incentives" as the change most likely to keep teachers in the profession, many explained that what they were voting for was an increased salary, not financial incentives. That same sentiment turned up both in numbers of votes and in responses to the incentive-pay poll. "Teachers should not have to outperform colleagues to receive more pay," explains one participant, an assertion many others echoed. "All teachers are underpaid!"

What teachers need most of all, writes another, is respect, "because when teachers are properly respected, the rest of what they need to be satisfied will come.

"If teachers were properly respected," the respondent continues, "they would be paid a respectable salary, with opportunity for advancement, without monetary penalty for student failure. If teachers were properly respected, we wouldn't overcrowd their classrooms and then complain that they aren't doing a good enough job."

Intangible, yet indispensable, this sense that what they do is not only valuable but also valued, is what keeps -- or would keep -- teachers teaching. "Respect," writes Cheryl Rundle, a school social worker in upstate New York, "is the invisible thing that motivates you to get up every day and enter the building, find the keys in the bottom of your purse, unlock the door, and turn on the lights of the classroom."

On that note, I pose a difficult question to you all: How do we cultivate this respect? How do we go about making fundamental changes in the way teachers are regarded and compensated? Not an easy task, certainly, but perhaps not an impossible one. Let me know what you think.

Sara Bernard

Journalist
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Lorrin Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The other night, when my mother-in-law was visiting, we pulled out our set of "conversation cards" after dinner. The question my 6 year old chose was something like, "What one issue would you try to focus on if you ever became president?" My immediate answer -- I'm a college professor, my husband a preschool teacher in a Montessori Head Start program -- was 'FIXING' PUBLIC EDUCTION BY WORKING TO RAISE THE MORALE OF PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS. If we could find a way to improve morale for teachers, it would mean that we as a society were finally able to do the following: 1) improve the level of respect that teachers could attain *outside the profession*; 2) reduce class size to a *manageable number* so that teachers could actually do their jobs; 3) equalize funding among school districts so that teachers in poor areas were not made to feel that their best hope was a simple failure to teach -- and the worst case scenario some kind of physical assault; 4) provide teachers with resources they need (books, support staff, responsive administration, adequate physical environment, time for exchange among colleagues) to do their jobs properly.
These basic changes -- and we don't need reams of research reports to prove their utility! -- would go such a long way to radically improving the state of public education in this country. Who here doesn't agree with me????

m s seekree's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am 60 plus and remember my teachers even of school days.Just an example.It was eigth class and our English teacher took us to a movie Hamlet(of Shakespeare).He explained the story and the power of the novel before going. His intention was to create an interest in us for good literature. Such teachers get respect automatically and they inculcate good qualities in their students. I remember him even after decades with gratitude.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stephen,
You took the words right out of my mouth.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The New York Times just had an article about doctors and lawyers complaining that they get no respect from their patients, the newspapers, and the public. This is what teachers have had difficulty with for years! The solution they came up with was to give the doctors and lawyers a second year end bonus that was larger than many of our yearly salaries....

Angel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i agree with your point but somewhre i feel uncomfort with your points that you wrote that you like a teacher as he explain very well but whenever any teacher scolld any student so it would feel shame to that student.............

marie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd like to commend you on getting your feelings out. It's tough being a teacher. I myself am a teacher and have been for 7 years. It's a grueling profession and a boring one at that. Day in day out same attitudes, people, work, routine. The paycheck is a drag and it's not realistic to pay college loans and rent on a teacher's salary. I know how draining it is. I've found some ways to brighten up my experiences.
rent Stand and Deliver. Look at what Escalante faced and realize you're not just a teacher-you're a warrior.

You can do a job that most people couldn't stand for 1 day.
You know how to handle the toughest platoon on the planet.
You alone ARE the only experience that those kids of someone staying in the room with them.
You are from teaching blood. Not anyone can teach and since your mom did it, you do it with your being.
You are Mr.Hunt. There is no other Mr Hunt that your kids will experience.
You control their moods with your happiness.
You respect you everyday and you mind crush the people who are not aware enough to realize that they should have just apologized.
Like a Samurai, you are modest, focused, and have chosen to live a career that involves honor, integrity and being a fighter from within.
Your not a teacher-you're an Educator.

You deserve to feel respected( and guess what, all of us other teachers respect you right now.)

take care be strong you are making a difference

Marie Hoffman

susan melton-piper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a toxicologist who changed careers to teaching chemistry. I did so after seeing a need at my older daughters school. Then I took 5 years off and returned this year. Kids are really rude and some parents get angry when their lazy student is not given an A. I don't give grades. Some parents even call me a lousy teacher over the phone without knowing anything about me when the kis, who doesn't study much and talks during lecture and lab, gets a B rather than an A. It is all my fault and ADHD is the excuse that she wants me to accept for the talking and lack of work by the student. As a person with ADHD and having a daughter with it I do not accept this in lieu of good manners and some basic study habits much lessa lack of personal responsibility. To think I gave up grad work at Stanford to come back to MS where I hate to admit I am from for people who choose ignorance. Now I know where Jerry Springer gets his guests and audiences

Moi Moi's picture

I am 41, and I have always respected teachers both as a child and now as an adult. However, at my children's private school the teachers' morale is low and they are 'cranky' (at least the female ones). I have been verbally abused and even poked in my back by some. I reported this to the school's Principal but for reasons known only to him, he did not get back to me on this (I assume he is too weak to do anything). So, respect works both ways. Teachers also need to respect the parents. Without the parents, you wouldn't have any students, thus no job.
-Canadian

Moi Moi's picture

I have always respected teachers, when I was a child and now as an adult. At my children's private school here in Canada, the teachers' morale (especially the female teachers) is low overall. They are cranky and verbally abusive, some like 'bombs' blowing up on you without a valid reason. The lack basic respect for parents. I have reported some incidents to the school's Principal, but he is too 'weak' to take appropriate action. So, it works both ways. Remember, without parents, you'd have no students and no job.

Carbon's picture

I have the same sentiments. But as a teacher I am expected to find all the answer to every question.Like, "why have I become a teacher?" I will never have enough money in this profession. I will surely get old with nothing and die still begging. I found one answer and tried to inspire myself before I could think of quitting this job. One day, in front of my grade 5 students, a Korean student called me " TEACHER" Quite surprised, I said "Yes?" I have never been addressed as teacher. We are used to be called Ma'am or Miss. Oh my goodness! I am a teacher! Jesus is a teacher. Jesus is God. I am a teacher. God had chosen to be a teacher not a doctor or somebody else. Then what am I complaining about? Jesus wants us to live in poverty. Ok, so I am back to the same question. No wonder, teachers always look up and wait for a miracle to happen." Thy will be done!"

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