Part 5: Value and Status

Note: The following is an excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book.

There’s this joke about two former classmates who meet up at high school reunion. One asks, “So, Bob, are you still a teacher?” The other replies, “Why, yes. Are you still a doctor?”

Teaching—such a worthwhile, righteous, and profoundly influential profession—is rarely distinguished by the authority or prestige it deserves. And with an increasingly large array of career options becoming available as information and technology explodes, the value and attractiveness of teaching as a career choice may well decline. (How many educators have heard some version of this presumptuous inquiry: “Gee, you’re so smart and creative. Why would you want to teach?”) Even some life-long educators interviewed for this book admitted trying to steer their own children onto different career paths, most often to protect their offspring from an overall scarcity consciousness, particularly with regard to resources, support, and income. (Public perception and an increasing emphasis on data-driven reforms also accounted for this negative attitude toward teaching among educators.)41

Nonetheless, Stephen Bongiovi, a high school English teacher, defended his pride in his profession: “There’s no such thing as just a teacher. Never downplay or de-emphasize yourself or what you do,” he advised. “Every successful venture— business, politics, publication, athletics, most any other field of endeavor— originates from the influence of a teacher.” And while you’ll get no argument here, I will concede that it can be pretty disheartening to be repeatedly exposed to a societal image in which teaching “is not worthy of the prestige of being a lawyer, doctor, or an engineer.”42

To a certain degree, the profession perpetuates this perception. Inman observed significant differences between teaching and other professions, financial discrepancies aside. “Professionals are usually distinguished by their specialty knowledge and skills, the unique contributions they make, the freedom afforded them to make decisions based on their best professional judgment, and the opportunity to organize their time and direct their own work,” he wrote.43 Yet how many educators would claim congruence between this description and their actual experiences as professionals? Lacking a private office, a secretary, access to telephones, time to confer with colleagues, or financial support for professional development— basic privileges professionals in other fields pretty much take for granted— doesn’t help either. Add in other factors many teachers experience, things like having to schedule lunch and bathroom breaks, sign in and out of work, or supervise the hallways, buses, lunchrooms, and playgrounds, and the professional image erodes even further. “Research shows that dissatisfaction related to these aspects of teaching are ones that approximately two-thirds of teachers and former teachers cite as a reason for leaving the profession,” claims Inman.44

Even basic supplies are not a given. While I’ve been in well-stocked schools where teachers wanted for nothing, this is not always the case. (A fellow teaching intern and I recently reminisced about one of the most absurd moments of our first year as we attempted to maneuver a huge role of brown paper towels through a ditto machine 45 because we had run out of paper for that month!) “Too often our schools, especially in the urban core, rely on teacher martyrdom— teachers working sixty or seventy hour weeks, spending thousands of dollars of their own money on basic classroom supplies, or providing enrichment activities for underprivileged kids,” cautioned high school teacher Karen Fernandez.

According to a recent study, “the average teachers spends at least $433” out of pocket for classroom supplies. About eight percent spend $1000. 46 New teachers often have to purchase what one first-year educator called “starter items.” Even the “little things” add up quickly, and the students’ parents can’t always help. “The students I work with are living below poverty level,” one new teacher wrote, “so asking for money from their parents to help with costs for a field trip or classroom supplies is always a touchy subject and generally avoided.” This should not be an issue for so many teachers, but the fact is that many of us face additional challenges of trying to do our jobs without adequate books, furniture, equipment, and supplies. (In what other fields are professionals taught, as a regular part of their professional training, to go to garage sales, save egg cartons, or scrounge throwaway materials from businesses in order to perform their jobs?) It can be hard to feel like a valued professional without some of these very basic benefits.

Click here to continue reading this chapter. (List of chapters below.)

41 Karen Fernandez, a high school English and language arts teacher, discovered, in her dissertation research, that many veteran teachers asked about beginning a teaching career would discourage new people from entering the field. Her interviews were framed in the context of the impact of legislation (specifically No Child Left Behind). Fernandez noted that her interviewees usually modified their responses, “stipulating that prospective teachers needed to do a lot of soul searching and spend a good amount of time in schools prior to making a major career decision.”

42 Ingersol, quoted in Kopkowski, 25.

43 Inman.

44 Inman. Many of the factors mentioned in this paragraph were also cited in his article.

45 Copy machines were rare or non-existent in schools when I started, so anything we needed to copy required a ditto machine, or “spirit duplicator,” which used solvents to make purple imprints on paper that went through the machines. Thanks to Bonnie Milanak for validating this memory for me.

46 Kopkowski, 24. A 2007 survey indicated that nearly half of respondents spend $500 or more, and one-third spend between $1000 and $3500 out of pocket for basic classroom supplies and necessities. (Edutopia Staff, “Readers’ Survey 2007: Amount You Spend Out of Pocket Each Year on Classroom Supplies. Available: Edutopia Web site, http://www.edutopia.org/amount-you-spend-out-pocket-each-year-classroom-supplies-2007.)

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book.

This chapter includes six challenges facing people in the teaching profession:

Part 1: Financial Realities
Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks
Part 3: Lack of Support
Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents
Part 5: Value and Status
Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Also check out:

Book: Managing 21st Century ClassroomsHow to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers

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