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Teaching: The Most Noble Profession

I just heard from a friend of mine, a middle school teacher in Wisconsin. She is an extraordinary educator, one of the most innovative, inspiring, dedicated, passionate, successful, loving and beloved teachers I have ever met. I only wish I’d had a single teacher during middle and high school as good as she is. She has been attending rallies at the Capital and reported that the state and future of education in Wisconsin are looking very bleak, and that it was wearing her down.

She missed the teacher’s convention last week for the first time in 10 years. Her heart just wasn’t moved to want to improve herself or the profession. In fact, she said with sadness, if the job market were better, she’d probably be looking. She wondered how to stay hopeful and positive when the state she was born and raised in seemed to be crumbling around her. She could have said a lot more but had to get back to work because a couple of students had come to her for some help (during her lunch break).

It is a scary thing to imagine that we are driving out the very best teachers like her. If this happens, the situation for our future really does become bleak. I encouraged her to remember what drew her to education, to remember who she is and why she does this work that, right now, seems thankless, but which is, above all else, the key to a better world. I told her that one governor and a climate of rhetoric cannot be overturned and changed without people who think deeply and innovatively to solve problems, and if she stopped preparing those thinkers and change agents of the future, then who would do this great work? I asked her to remember people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi and the forces arrayed against them that they struggled (and struggle) to topple against all odds.

My hope is that she will fight with all her heart and soul to teach with her passion intact no matter what systems around her seem intractable and no matter what happens in the Wisconsin Capital. We need her – our future needs her – now more than ever.

In college a friend in medical school told me that he thought that medicine was the most noble profession. It was a strange statement, really, and quite provocative. I wondered at the time, can any profession be the most noble? I ruminated on it for a long time, and now, thirty years later, I feel ready to respond. If pressed to name the most noble profession, I would not hesitate to say teaching.

Teachers are the agents of the future. Will our world be populated by people ready and able to meet that future as creative and critical thinkers; as wise, compassionate and knowledgeable citizens; as skilled and motivated solutionaries within their professions? The answer to this question lies with teachers. More than any other profession, teaching has the power to create a healthy, just, and peaceful world (or not). It has the ability to seed our society with informed, caring and engaged citizens (or not). It has the capacity to inspire lifelong learning and a passion for knowledge, understanding, and innovation (or not). Is there anything more important than this?

Yet here we are with the media and elected officials lambasting Wisconsin teachers and decrying their huge salaries. Yes, their huge salaries, which the media have been reporting as, on average, $51K/year with benefits (good pensions and health insurance). We see middle class people pitted against each other (as in: “Public school teachers are paid so much more than their non-union private sector counterparts!”) Are these “news” reporters and government officials comparing public school (union) teachers with private school (non-union) teachers, which might be the only valid comparison? No. They are comparing public school teachers to the “average worker in America.”

Imagine if we had a public healthcare system like Canada does. Doctors there make, on average, over $200K/year. That’s well above the “average worker” in Canada. Are those doctors greedy and selfish? Why do they get paid this much with citizen’s tax dollars? They are paid well above the “average worker” because as a society, Canada thinks they deserve it. Because who would become a doctor if they weren’t well compensated for their time and preparation and responsibility? Because if you want good healthcare from competent and highly trained professionals, it costs money.

Given that I believe that teaching may well be the profession with the greatest responsibility and require the truly best and brightest, wisest and most motivated, most creative and compassionate people, the argument that teachers are overpaid because they make more than the “average worker” is not only absurb, it is also dangerous. We rightly decry bad teachers in our schools, and I am the first to agree that bad teachers are overpaid. I think they’re overpaid if they they make $30K/year. They should be fired, period, just as incompetent doctors are stripped of their licenses. But we are now doing the opposite of promoting master teaching and reducing poor teaching. Instead of seeding our schools with great teachers, many of the most creative and brilliant educators are leaving a field laden with bureaucracy, rote memorization for standardized bubble tests, increased classroom size, and now the insulting commentary from a public that wants to reduce their already inadequate wages and which seems to have forgotten who it is who has the grave responsibility of educating our children. The best teachers are fed up, and many are deciding to take their talents and skills elsewhere, where they’ll not only get paid more but where their intelligence and creativity will also be respected and rewarded. This is the great irony and tragedy of the “discussion” we’re having through the media, launched by the protests in Wisconsin against a governor trying to bust the unions. We say we want to fix the educational system, which indeed needs an overhaul not just repair, but by denigrating the profession and claiming that $51K/year plus good benefits is excessive, we are doing the opposite of creating better schools for our kids.

The truth is that we pay great teachers far less than they are worth. The master teachers out there, the ones who provide their students with the knowledge they truly need, the critical and creative thinking skills without which our future is so uncertain, the capacity for reason, research and thoughtfulness that will make them, among other things, able to parse ridiculous rhetoric and sound-bites and reject and refute them with clarity and kindness, and the passion for lifelong learning in a world changing so rapidly and so in need of positive solutions, should be paid as much as radiologists and orthopedists. Fortunately, given the state of our economy, great teachers are willing to work for what amounts to a pittance given their talent and responsibility. And we are trying to deny them this. How ignoble is that?

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