The Fix that Won’t: How we talk about Teachers

This is the first in a four part series. I have a lot of thoughts about education. A lot. The system is broken and this junk ain’t fixing it. 

Folks, I am tired, tired. I did the unthinkable today. I stood in my kitchen and talked with my husband about the possible need for an exit strategy from my current job. An exit strategy. From teaching. The legislature in Georgia has accepted “Race to the Top” money and has to institute merit pay. So, they are doing so in the 2014-15 school year, and the way they have chosen to institute merit pay leaves me wondering what else I could do for a living.

I love my job, and frankly, I am damn good at it. Ask the parents who are calling the office to demand a kid I taught for ninth grade is put in my room for tenth. I am passionate about it. Ask my department head who on more than one occasion has found me standing in front of his desk in a puddle of angry tears because I don’t think my kids are being fairly represented . I am innovative. Ask my assistant principal who regularly shows up in my room and later emails me asking me for my lesson plans because he has never seen anything like that before. I am inspiring. Ask my student who wrote in the Christmas card “you make English class not suck.” (You have no idea what kind of compliment that is from a tenth grade boy. Gold standard!)  I have been reading new books I am thinking about teaching all summer.  And I am not the exception to the rule. I have worked in three schools in six years, and most of my colleagues are just like me.

It is irritating to me that I have to even pre-emptively defend myself like this. That I have to explain how much I love my job, my students, my subject matter. I hate that I have to prove that I work my ass off every day for my kids.

But I do, because the way our culture talks about teachers is as much the reason bad legislation gets passed as anything else.  As a teacher, either you are the answer to all educational woes, or you are the problem. You are either a savior teacher, the kind who uses your body as a human shield to protect your kids, or you are a lazy bum. You aren’t allowed to be what most teachers actually are, people who do their job to the best of their ability because they believe it makes a difference. You aren’t allowed to be that. You are either saint or sinner of the worst kind. That is the way we talk about teachers.

We don’t talk about people who want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They may gripe about the grading they have to take home, but don’t you resent having to take work home too? Like most people in this world, teachers are doing the best that we can. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that simply isn’t allowed. We have to be miracle workers, and if we aren’t? Lazy, money-grubbing, union slobs who grew up and chose teaching so we still get spring and summer break.

So, if I have to choose between someone thinking of me as a terrible lazy person who hates students, and Freedom Writer (who on the record only taught for two years, because that model isn’t sustainable) I choose Freedom Writer. It is what my students called me the first six months of teaching when they couldn’t tell white people apart anyway.

But why do I feel the need to try to convince you that I am the world’s best teacher anyway? Because I want to critique merit pay, and the first thing that people want to get all up in your grill about, when you are teacher who has the nerve to have an opinion about your own paycheck and how the state is about to seriously jack with whether or not you get every cent that is owed to you via your contract, is how you just don’t want merit pay because you won’t hack it.

See, with the “teacher is either a perfect saint or a terrible glutton” dichotomy there are only two choices. The perfect saint teacher is too far above griping about her pay. Besides, she is the perfect saint teacher; she of course will have the test scores to guarantee her a full pay check. So it must be the terrible glutton lazy hater teacher who is complaining about teacher pay. And they don’t deserve the money they are raking in anyway. They deserve to be fired.

Well, I am speaking up about teacher merit pay and the dumb ways we are instituting it. And yeah, I have some off days where I don’t get it all right. But I am far from the lazy teacher that hates her kids that everyone likes to talk about. I am just doing the best I can, like Donna Summer, I work hard for the money. So hard for it honey!  So you BETTER treat me right. Or at least hear me out.

I need teachers to be treated like any other professionals. Of course we have opinions about the ways in which we are paid. And it isn’t just about the money. It is about the respect of a profession, it is about trusting us to do the job you are (sort of) paying us to do. And it is always, ALWAYS about what is best for our students. Putting teachers up on impossible pedestals or throwing them under the proverbial bus. It isn’t good for anyone.

I am not against merit pay. I actually like the way some school districts are instituting it. Stay tuned tomorrow for my thoughts about merit pay as the state of GA is instituting it and why it isn’t going to fix what is broken.

27 thoughts on “The Fix that Won’t: How we talk about Teachers

  1. You described the inability to be taken seriously as a teacher unhappy with merit pay so well! Laughed out loud at the “she only taught two years” comment about Freedom Writer. That was exactly my thought along with, “Dear world. The woman’s marriage was destroyed for the sake of her classroom. Is that what you want us to do? I’m not married, but I wouldn’t.”

  2. Abby,
    Thank you for this post. Very eloquent, hard-hitting, in your face, and very much needed. I’ve been an educator for 13 years and have loved teaching except that time it became all about testings, scores, bubble kids, and cutting out liberal arts programming – that’s when I realized education as we know it, isn’t about the kids anymore. I am not sure how I feel about merit pay other than it cannot be the sole focus of determined student achievement. Students are more that just a jumble of letters mixed in multiple choice format. Let’s be real, real life ain’t not multiple choice game. It requires more than what books and silly tests can teach. To tie a teacher’s worth and value to a child’s progress can be detrimental. What if we did that to lawyers, doctors, judges, police men? Why is it that teachers are often and most easily vilified? One day we just might look up and find all our best teachers have fled because we pushed them out because we made what doesn’t matter the crux of our whole success. This cannot be. Thanks for this post. I’m with you sister!

  3. And God forbid we should have a life, too, with home and spouse and kids and hobbies…that would preclude us from sainthood as well. I left teaching (the first time) because after six years, I was so burned out that I knew I couldn’t be a good mom and a good teacher then; something had to give. Now it’s the housework that suffers. 😉 Thanks for touching on that point!

  4. Organizations reward what they value. The move towards pay based on test scores is clear evidence that the American education system cares more about students ability to regurgitate info on a Standardized test than to think critically, problem solve, and engage the world. I teach in South LA and I often ask myself how long I can keep operating in a system by justifying that I find ways to make a difference in spite of, not because of, my profession.

  5. Abby,

    It was obvious to me that your students know you work your ass off from this post: So much so they wanted to intervene. 🙂

    Seriously Abby I know they can not pay you or others like you what you are worth. Teacher’s pay should be so much higher. The pay has never been on par with the responsibility. As a nation we depend on teacher’s for our future but we act like anyone can take care of what you do by the way we treat teachers. You are entrusted with our nations top resource but we pay and treat you like a baby sitter instead of a mentor and key developer of that talent. It should not be this way.

    I do not disagree on merit increases as long as we know how to measure and sometimes the important stuff is hard to measure.

    Abby it seems obvious that you love to teach and love your students. We can not afford to lose great teachers like you in any school system. I hope GA adjust what they are doing to make it better.

  6. The funny thing about merit pay, is how do I get it? (says the music teachers, the art teachers, and another subject not able to be tested)

    • The special education resource teacher, the media specialist, the speech-language pathologist and others would also like to know how to get it.

      • Well, I don’t know about “get it” it looks to me like the laws are written so that merit pay isn’t on top of the salary I have been contracted for, but instead a way to cut my pay.

  7. Pingback: The Fix That Won’t: Merit pay, How to Pay Teachers less | Accidental Devotional

  8. I’m fifty years old and for as long as I can remember teachers have not been valued. Two of my sisters are teachers (I’m an accountant) and they have rued the day they entered the field. At a certain point, you either have to say you’re all in due to the number of years until you retire or you leave the so-called “profession”.

    What I can’t understand is how we STILL have idealistic young people entering teaching. I think it’s why legislatures through the decades has always messed with teachers. There’s always a steady crop.

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