Sweating blood for peanuts?

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Teachers in the US are underpaid, overworked and unappreciated. Kenny Frederick would like to see less moaning and more action.

Teachers have it easy: the big sacrifices and small salaries of America's teachers. By Dave Eggers, Daniel Moulthrop and Ninive Clements Calegari. Foreword by Henry Louis Gates. The New Press pound;14.99

The foreword says this book's purpose is to convince the American public that "we need to pay teachers more" and to give those in authority some ideas on how this might be possible. The authors - Dave Eggers, bestselling novelist and editor of the cult magazine McSweeney's, and two former teachers - chart the careers and personal circumstances of a number of teachers in the United States and outline how hard they work and how badly they are paid. They conclude that the low pay and low status of teachers is "scandalous". This takes 345 pages; it could have been a much shorter book.

It is jam-packed with case studies of unhappy teachers, including Jonathon Dearman, a "superhero" of a high school teacher from San Francisco who gives it all up to become an estate agent. Besides the poor salary and unrealistic working conditions, Mr Dearman's main reason for leaving the profession is that he never felt more than 70 per cent effective, no matter how hard he worked. This is something all teachers can relate to.

While I could empathise with the individuals, I did find the despair a little wearing. This is certainly not a book I would recommend to my staff.

Instead of complaining, we like to focus on making a great job manageable.

While I was impatient with the accounts of those who clearly feel very sorry for themselves - not a positive example for young people - I was saddened by that of April Sharpe, an art teacher from Florida who tells us that her parents were disappointed when she said she wanted to be a teacher. They thought it was a waste of the $100,000 they had spent on her education. I would be very proud if my son wanted to teach.

The book quotes a survey carried out in 2000 of US college graduates under 30 who chose professions other than teaching. Their three most common reasons were that teachers are seriously underpaid, they do not have good opportunities for advancement and they do not feel respected or appreciated.

As in the UK, the teacher shortage in the US is not evenly spread. There has been a chronic shortage of teachers in "certain school settings" (urban areas) since the early 1990s. Each school district sets its own pay levels, so teachers commute out of their district to one that pays more: the parallel being teachers who travel into inner London to benefit from the weighting allowance.

The reforms that the authors outline include a pay-for-performance scheme piloted in Denver from 1993 to 2003. This appears similar to our performance management system, except ours is technically not linked to pay (yet). Each teacher discussed possible goals with the principal. Once these were agreed they became the teacher's objectives. For each two objectives achieved the teacher was awarded $750. However, the biggest payments (more than $2,000 each) are offered for obtaining a relevant master's degree and the National Board Certification, which is the same system as before. Yet teaching in a "hard-to-serve school" was worth only $989. Other performance-related pay awards vary from between $300 and $600, hardly enough to improve the quality of life for many teachers.

It seems that our ministers and DfES officials have been looking closely at American research, as they have implemented many of the suggested reforms outlined in this book. However, I am pleased to say they have also looked at the wider issues around teacher recruitment and retention. Work-life balance is a major cause for concern and we have a raft of strategies to improve it. Perhaps the US needs to look at the continuing professional development programmes in the UK as a model for delivering lifelong learning for teachers. In-service training in the US is done mostly in teachers' own time and often at their own expense. It is geared mostly towards increasing teacher qualifications rather than the needs of school or pupils.

What is missing from this book is any sense of what's good about being a teacher, particularly in a challenging school. Working in partnership with other teachers and talented teaching assistants will lighten the load for all. In the UK we now have huge numbers of mature beginning teachers who have left lucrative jobs to train. The reality is that not all other professions are well paid, and job satisfaction in corporate life can be very low. Teachers swallow the myths about other professions in the same way as the general public believe myths about us.

As for wanting to be appreciated: if you wait to be appreciated for doing a job you love, you will wait a lifetime.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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