Since National Teacher Appreciation Day - who knew? - is about to pass with little fanfare, it might be time to ask why. Hint: it's not for lack of attention from Hollywood.
The movie industry continues to churn out an impressive list of virtuous films about dedicated educators. Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Emperor's Club, Lean on Me, as well as plenty of lower profile made-for-TV efforts like last fall's The Knights of the South Bronx.
You would assume that these riveting depictions would trigger a stampede to become teachers. You would assume there would be a widespread impact from so many films showing the job of teacher to be noble and rewarding in ways that far surpass mere salary considerations. Didn't the movie of All the President’s Men supposedly lead to a mass enrollment in journalism programs?
But inspiring teacher movies, even ones starring Michelle Pfeiffer or Ted Danson, have not sent young people flocking to become teachers. You need only to look in the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper late in the summer as the academic year is beginning to recognize that, unlike most employment situations in North America, there are far more job openings than there are qualified candidates.
What gives? The explanation is both mundane and radical.
On the mundane, there’s the matter of pay. Starting teachers earn as little as $25,000 in some states. Public school elementary and high school teachers, rookies and 25 year veterans, earn an average annual salary of $47,808. Pay increases in the field no longer keep up with inflation.
In addition, there’s the fact that teaching is very hard work and involves long hours that often start before dawn and stretch well into the night, not to mention weekends. The average work week for a teacher exceeds 50 hours. (Teachers do enjoy summers off.)
Teaching is inherently a selfless profession. For the most part, it lacks standard aspects of ego gratification. If what you really want to be – and who among us can resist the barrage of seductive inducements? – is a winner, a player, a swoosh, a success, a somebody, there seems to be scant benefit in a career where the most you might dare hope for is a scribbled note of thanks from a grateful parent. No Nobel, no Pulitzer, no lavish perks, no stock options, no corner office with a view, no Academy Awards.
Young people who contemplate becoming teachers must therefore be willing to say to themselves and to their families that they are choosing another path, a path that may not exactly contradict popular notions of achievement but certainly sidesteps them. To be a teacher, you have to believe in – and I use this phrase cautiously – a higher calling. Now that’s radical!
And the movie and TV industry clearly understands this. These films about dedicated teachers are not made to recruit people to teaching. But they are made with a keen sense of the powerful emotional drama that occurs when a talented adult chooses, consciously chooses, to use his or her talents unselfishly.
In this sense, the compelling teacher movies are recruiting posters . . . but for an idea. It just happens to be an idea that most people would greatly prefer to see lived out by someone else. Someone like Michelle Pfeiffer or Ted Danson.
Bob Katz is author of "Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, A Student, A Classroom and One Unforgettable Year," and writes frequently on education.