Professional Learning

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What Keeps Teachers Teaching

December 9, 2006

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.

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