This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity to celebrate great teachers. While attention is focused let me float an outrageous idea. Though I don’t have the workings of this proposal completely flushed out I hope to instigate a dialogue and let you continue the conversation.
I believe teachers are underpaid. And underappreciated. Let me back up a sec: What brought this top of mind are commercials currently airing (and somewhat self-aggrandizing) for the energy industry. You might have seen them, featuring successful—and not unattractive—young professional engineers whose physics and math teachers opened their minds to a world in which they could exploit their passion inspired by their teachers that led to a career and a life.
What if there was a way to address the inequities, in the process refurbishing education as a noble art and science and do it in such a way that avoids new taxes or municipal funding?
Here’s what I believe to be a logical method of rewarding those kinds of instructors: Why not set up a system of tithing; a tangible way former students who by admission found a life because of a memorable teacher. Let’s adopt a method to turn over a very modest amount of money per ex-student, now contributor to a teacher or teachers. Not to the school or district—but directly. These endowments would be a royalty, a supplemental contribution to the teacher(s) who has gone beyond. Just think, the average major subject high school teacher sees over 4500 youngsters in a 30-year career; an elementary teacher, 900. If only a few students, who believe one or more teachers added to their lives would pony up a stipend, then teachers would not only reap a personal gain that would improve their economic station, but set the country on notice that we honor and will reward great teaching. The well-known educational ripple effect (“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams) would be a paradigm for the nation. What a culture change. No matter the political party, there’s no downside to supporting this. Well, maybe not all politicians would agree, especially the ones who had all bad teachers, right?
In the short term, such a plan resolves very specific wants:
- Adjusting salaries to make teaching a more fiscally viable profession
- Addressing teacher evaluations currently based either on formal and mostly contractual agreements or high stakes test results; both of which are flawed metrics
- Diminishing the overplayed hand of the unions to level the playing field where mediocre and superlative instructors are paid equally based on years of service and graduate credit hours for courses having no bearing on instructional quality
In the long term, we establish a system that will drive teacher’s efforts to create instruction that is more dynamic and draw out a more humanistic approach to the treatment of students. That’s not an accusation that teachers as a group do not try to develop quality lessons nor are they deficient in humanity. However, we’ve all been students and can recall quite clearly those teachers who had the kindness and compassion any parent would hope was doled out to their child during the school day. But we can also recall the harridans, shrews, and malcontents among a faculty to whom teaching was a job to be endured and gave over as little of themselves as they could get away with. So posit this:
- A 20-year biology teacher whose total salary based on service and coursework is $60,000 per year.
- Next door, also teaching biology, the teacher is receiving $60,000 but based on voluntary ex-student contributions, her royalties are yielding an annualized, additional $12,000.
What does that say to teachers, the school and district and community?
Moreover, it becomes part of a teacher’s portfolio of merit they can take with them if they decide to shop around for another position in marketplace for excellence outside their current district.
The mechanics, as I said are in the formative stage banging around in my head. Case in point; I would like a value metric to balance these anomalies:
- Rewarding an elementary school teacher who inspired you to think more of yourself but had no direct connection (though some psychologists would disagree) with your choice of career.
- K-6 teachers see a disproportionately smaller cadre of students but arguably can be more formative shaping a child and effective at saving one in crisis.
- What about a teacher who mentors students but is not their actual teacher? He supported and counseled youngsters helping them overcome their self-doubts, lack of confidence, sense of otherness and enabled them to grow in to good spouses, parents and wage earners; how do we apportion those contributions?
- What about special education, teachers of the arts and other specialties who in some settings have very few students.
Maybe this system would be unfairly slanted and biased against these professionals unless we look for a way to design in equity. Something to chew on.
So here’s how this might work:
Every year in the Valley School District 700 students graduate. Assuming they go straight to work or on to higher education, whether technical training or a collegiate experience they will be wage earners.
Let’s just say the IRS, attaches form 1200A, Education Contribution Benefit Designation to every return. This document is a rubric with these elements:
- A space to name teacher(s)
- A series of metrics, say a Likert scale (1-5 or NA) where they could identify and rate teachers based on objective criteria. For instance, did the teacher on line 21 provide you with the information you needed to be hired in the field/job you sought. Or did the teacher prepare you for acceptance into a higher education program. Did the teacher help you create a portfolio or college essay that allowed you entry into your field of study?
- Another series of metrics would be subjective, though not less important. Any psychometrican can compose, scale, and provide weight with regard to the value of these traits. For instance, did the teacher in line 24 provide the emotional support you needed when you were in crisis? Did s/he mentor you influencing you in a positive way that has made you a better person? Can you appreciate the differences among cultures, countries, and people unlike yourself?
- A space for supporting statements whether written by the constituent donor or other material provided as evidence the teacher is eligible for a contribution benefit.
- A space to work out the amount designated to be apportioned to the named teacher(s).
- Perhaps none of the above except the name of the teacher and the amount to be contributed.
If you teach for 30 years, regardless of level or subject you will have influenced, not just taught content to thousands of youngsters who are now adults and hopefully earning a living. Every year the numbers of ex-students enters the workforce and are added to the roles of possible ‘donors.’ Kind of like compound interest!
I would propose each contributor/donor be obligated for life, with contingencies of course. This serves two purposes; contributing is understood as a very serious commitment with long range consequence and contributions end only if the individual is out of work or retires; furthermore, it ensures the amount cannot fluctuate downward (unless circumstances such as the above occur) so the teacher can budget and rely on that income well in to retirement. Most importantly, I believe the contributor can add a teacher’s name at any time for as we mature it is only from a distance do we begin to fathom the impact a teacher has had on our lives.
OK, some of you might define this plan as merit pay or reimbursement of extraordinary value. Others will see it as a ‘tip’ –a surcharge for what should have been the norm in the first place. I see it more like a legacy reward for a lifetime of great service recognized by customers… AND an immediate way to shake up the profession by the scholars hood and wake up potential. We can declare non too subtlety that, with some inspiration, even if in the form of—gasp—money, teachers can be moved to higher levels of overall performance. Finally it shakes up the worst offenders in the education realm—schools of education whose teacher prep programs are at the least out of touch… and at the worst criminally deficient allowing virtually anyone who pays tuition, is drawing breath and can prep for the tests into the classroom. You know the adage…what do they call the one who finishes last in medical school…doctor.
That’s the plan. Talk about it, argue over it, but don’t pass it by. We rank far below even the poorest countries on many education scales of measurement. I believe a major reason is teaching and our myopic view of schools. The public coffers are empty and education at all levels is being starved. Here’s a place to jump into the dialogue. Or not, but I hope for better. Lastly, I believe I have the chops to write this; I taught K-12, was a university professor and a school administrator in urban settings. I’ve seen education from inside and as a corporate educator working with schools throughout the world.
I’ll end on a positive note. I want to thank Miss Libman my first grade teacher at PS 194 in Brooklyn for her compassion and humanity. Miss Nurnberg who found my talent for art in grade 6 and allowed me extra time at the easel, also at PS 194. Frank Pelligrini who insisted I not turn in less than perfect work and rejected much of my efforts until I got it right, and last but not least, Dr. Peter Bohan, now gone, whose inspiration and love of subject made me a life-long learner and seeker. I would gladly tithe to any and all.