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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


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

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Dewey J. Walsh, Ed.D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
In response to teachers respect: one might look at how one looks. I have seen teachers in jeans and sweatshirts. What happend to formal business dress? In my teaching since 1959 and I am still at it, I have worn a tie and suit coat at every class session. Now the dress does not make the knowledge move, but it does give a sense of organication and professionalism. Society has become to informal. As a result of this informality students see this as being like them, informal, and not professional. The making fun of teachers buy cutting off the hair of a teachers for money raising. We make fun of ourselves in trying to be one of the students and it backfires. Disrespect, if you don't work for respect you will not receive it.
Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I teach, and have taught for the excitement of engaging learners. I don't know how to explain this but it is like a bit of magic when you help a student to learn and you are so good at it that it just works. I was at a supercomputing conference in Tampa, and a young man walked up to me. It was a student I taught the use of computers to, when to do so was on the edge. He is working in Supercomputing now. We talked and laughed about the days of long ago. We had ONE computer, but we used it in wonderful ways. A letter from a student who has finally taken her children to the Baltimore Aquarium. She remembers when I took her and paid for her trip and actually had to talk her parents into letting her be a part of that learning activity. A letter from a student to let me know that he is a geographer. He remembers the boxes of goodies we got often from the National Geographic and the maps we created and the GIS we learned back then. I am walking along at night in Alexandria and a person speaks up, and calls my name. It was a person who was in my play, the Wiz.. who got over his fear of audiences.. He is a lawyer. There is not so much pay, but there is the way we mentor, guide, share and lead. I like getting results.. and seeing the lights turn on in the eyes of learners..
Masoud's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love my teachers as they respect me and helped me alot. I've never seen like them before.They are so seriuos about thier teaching. I think its more that it, its about thier friendship. thier way of teaching.It's clear if you don't respect others, they don't respect you too. that is rule. you can't oblige anyone to repect you,the only thing you can do is respect them to make them react in the same way.Finally All I could say is; Your value is on your hands....

I'm student in University of Kurdistan-Hawler (http://ukh.ac/).

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is certainly not the pay or the glamour that comes with the job. After reading Sara Bernard's main post I began thinking about what keeps me in the field of teaching. Teachers are not respected. We are often looked down on because of the field we chose. A person once told me while I was in college that being in the education field were for people who couldn't do anything else. He said that anyone could receive a degree in education. Ignorant people say ignorant things. But really, where is the respect? We work so hard trying to come up with creative and engaging lessons that hopefully will get our content across in a meaningful way. We are always buying things for our classroom with our own money. We are given classroom sizes that are impossible to manage and successfully teach. Being paid more can not help the overcrowded classrooms, the lack of material, resources, or support. Being paid more will not make us feel respected. Being paid more will only ease the financial burden that many teachers are facing. It is up to us to respect ourselves and our fellow teachers that we reach out to for help. It is up to us to know that at the end of the day, what really matters is how we helped at least one student. If teachers are waiting to be respected by people on the "outside" of the teaching profession, then be prepared to wait. I respect myself, and I know that I am in a worthy profession that takes special people to make a difference.

Kumaresan.P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear everyone,
Good maorning, This proffesssion of being a school teacher is no doubt a NOBLE one. Any under estimation will have a negative impact on future society for sure.
Children are groomed here gradually to face outside world with all good qualities.
I remember the old saying "In a country where Teachers and policemen are not respected will ruin itself".
Being the son of a school teacher and myself an educator I am writing out of first hand experience and can quote many instances from real life situations which turned many peoples lives.
Every parent has to deal with 10 children for a day and they will come to know what is like to "Deal with children". What talent it requires.
They deserve RESPECT and GOOD PAY to have a civilsed society.
Thanking you,
Kumaresan from India.

Tristan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have often thought that one radical way to change educationi is to make is voluntary. Rather than force students to attend school have them attend when the work force tells them that they cannot read and it is important. It appears to me that school is scene as an obligation and not a privilege. Politicians and the media speak about the wealthy having better access to education; not so, they just have a better perspective as to the importance of education. I would pose a national dialog include making education itself something that should be respected and those that provide it will earn the respect desired.

Stephen Hunt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I came to the teaching profession through an alternative certification program. As the child of a career teacher, my mother quickly told me that a degree in education was not an option. I would get a college education that would allow me to support myself (business or some other discipline), or I would be completely alone when it came to pay for college.

I completed a degree in Economics and begin working in private industry. After a few years, the desire to teach could not be suppressed and I enrolled in an alternative certification course.

Working with youth, changing lives and helping students learn are truly things I enjoy. Recently however, the other parts of being an educator have begun to weigh heavily on me. The nonstop paper work tracking LEP and Special Students, the state standards and federal standards (which never agree on anything), the lack of respect from parents, students and my peers who are not educators. It is too much to deal with sometimes.

I would love to see people in another industry deal with such volatility from the tools of their trade. Can you imagine a manufacturer trying work with raw materials that refused to stay on the assembly line or shouted profanity at him? What about an IT manager dealing with a computer that is going through adolescence?

At the end of the day, I come home and dread going back to work. Each morning, I stall getting dressed and debate using my sick days. Salary does not become an issue until I get home after a long day of being cursed at, ignored and frustrated by students, disrespected and undermined by parents or told that I am not working hard enough by standardized test results. After putting that behind me, I come home, sit on the couch and I see my pay check. It is then that I realize that suffering all day barely covers my living expenses and student loan payments. That is when salary becomes an issue.

I say either fix the deplorable working conditions or fix the salary, it is unrealistic to ask for both. Since we have laws that protect from child abuse, spouse abuse, elderly abuse, why can't we have one that protects teachers from abuse?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been wearing a suit and tie for many years. I have been teaching for 42 years, long after my colleagues have retired.

Students arriving in class every morningsee that I am professionally ready for them. They can see for themselves that I respect them enough to dress professionally every single day.

Our secretaries dress many times better than our teachers. This fact makes me feel bad.

LT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sure, it's important to look like you care about your appearance at work. I don't believe that a tie and suit jacket are important, but I do believe that SPELLING is... ("organication"?) Not to pick nits -- but hey, if you're going to harp on signs and symbols that reside on the surface of things, like dress -- as opposed to the spirit and energy of good teaching, which go much deeper -- at least check your spelling.

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