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A Teacher's Life

Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers
, by Daniel Moulthrop, Nínive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers

Michele Ledda
posted 1 February 2008

In spite of this book’s title, which challenges the popular prejudice about teachers, its authors – novelist and editor Dave Eggers, veteran schoolteacher Nínive Clements Calegari and journalist Daniel Moulthrop – are not on teachers’ side. A more appropriate title would be Life of a Salesman, as they are in fact enthusiastic advocates of the reforms that are currently transforming teaching from a rewarding profession into a soulless job, ruled by statistics and numerical data which are used to measure the ‘performance’ of pupils, teachers, schools and government, in the misplaced belief that these industrial methods can improve the quality of education. And while the book is concerned with teaching in the US, the sentiments expressed are just as prevalent in Britain and probably beyond.

The book’s main argument is encapsulated in the story of the authors’ ideal teacher. Jonathan Dearman works hard to ‘make a difference’ to the lives of the young people at his San Francisco high school, but is not rewarded for his commitment, accumulates debts, feels that he is not reaching many of the pupils in his charge and eventually leaves the profession to become a real estate salesman. In order to solve the problem of teachers’ disaffection, the authors would like teaching to become more similar to selling real estate: higher earning potential, more targets and performance-related pay. But while selling goods and services is an honourable profession, teaching, by its nature, requires very different qualities.

The book is packed with figures and storytelling, but offers very little in the way of analysis. Yet it is an important book in that it expresses well the attitudes towards teachers and education that are currently shaping Western education systems. Behind the authors’ seemingly optimistic, progressive vision both for education and for society, lies the acceptance of a world shaped by forces beyond the influence, let alone the control, of human beings. Their view of education is a preparation for such a world.

Teachers and salesmen

Accordingly, in spite of the large number of pages devoted to highlighting the enormous sacrifices these saint-like figures go through in order to educate our children, Teachers Have It Easy is an attack on the integrity of the teaching profession and a call for ever more flexibility. The authors seem to put forward an argument for increasing teachers’ pay, but they link such increases to complete subservience, both by individual teachers and by the unions, to educational administrators and to the principle of performance-related pay. They are enthusiastic about the idea of regular checks to ensure that teachers are still fit to practise their profession as the authors understand it. Such systems of regulation, which are becoming the norm both in the US and in the UK, are the final nail in the coffin of professional autonomy.

The authors propose a business model in which teachers sell their labour power at market price and employers set the aims and targets. Indeed, the main reason why employers are urged to increase teachers’ pay is that they need to attract higher-calibre graduates from the job market, and get rid of the underperforming through performance assessment. The main point of this book is that, if teachers were offered a competitive pay structure linked to performance, on the model of private industry, the right sort of people would join the profession, while now they are forced to leave in droves in search of a salary high enough to survive and raise a family.

The assumption is that only the saints, the singles and those who are too hapless to get a job in private industry currently join and stay in the teaching profession. However, it is precisely some of those who are not interested in a ‘high-powered’ career, those who would be hopeless as salesmen, who often make the very best teachers.

It is true that teachers have traditionally been poorly paid and their status in society has never been very high (though nowadays it is particularly low, despite recent pay increases). It would also be much better if our society paid teachers substantially higher wages. Yet teaching has its advantages. It has traditionally been a very secure job (though our authors propose reforms that would make it much less secure), and everyone points out the long holidays and short working hours, even though lesson preparation and marking do sometimes eat quite substantially into teachers’ free time. Besides, the short working hours can be very intense and leave you quite exhausted for the rest of the day, all aspects that the authors emphatically point out.

Nevertheless, teaching has often been seen as a haven from the instrumentalist relationships of most jobs on the market, and thus has appealed to individuals who are particularly interested in pursuing the life of the mind. These people might not be very good or even interested in selling themselves on the job market, nor particularly brilliant at writing CVs, filling in application forms or performing in job interviews, but they have a passion for a particular field of knowledge and like to pass on their enthusiasm and their knowledge to young people.

This reflects the fact that, ideally, schools should be a semi-private, sheltered place where children can learn about the world without being exposed to its harshest manifestations, where they have time to study, think, debate and develop their minds under greater pressure than in their homes, but away from the pressures of the workplace and of adult life. Yet this fundamental aspect of education is absent from the book’s account. For Eggers et al, school is mainly preparation for work and the acquisition of life-skills. Teachers are trainers who develop children’s self-esteem and transmit specific workplace skills and habits such as ‘working as part of a group' or learning to write a CV. Of course, some of these skills can be valuable. The problem is not that they are taught, but that they are replacing a more valuable kind of education based on intellectual development through the teaching of the most important disciplines that make up human knowledge.

Emotional and behavioural training

Other developments lauded by the authors are more intrinsically problematic, such as the teaching of correct emotional and psychological states. These represent at best a waste of time and at worst a form of state intrusion into the most intimate personal space. One project described in the book, for example, involves writing a poem for a fellow student who died from cancer, putting it to music, and performing it in assembly first and then at the funeral service. This is how Jonathan Dearman describes the process: 'we were trying to mourn, to sit with this and not to escape it but to experience it in a really healthy, mindful way and to write this music.'

‘It was such beautiful grieving,’ comments a colleague of Dearman’s. ‘It was transforming so many kids who have been exposed to so much violence in the neighboroods. These kids had experienced a lot of grief and were practiced in dealing with it by drinking or getting high or ripping off a store or something like that.’ While there is no harm in advising pupils not to react violently to certain situations, who is a teacher to tell pupils the correct way to grieve? Shouldn’t this be an entirely personal, spontaneous response? And is it not cynical, immoral even, to use the death of a pupil as an opportunity to engineer a sense of community?

Here is another description of what the authors consider to be an exemplary fourth grade (nine-year-olds) lesson. This is the start of the class: ‘”Yo, yo, yo!” Miss Oblad calls out. “Yo, what’s up?” is the response, in unison, from her eighteen students. [...] Miss Oblad announces the beginning of “appreciation/concern time”.’ While the teacher sits quietly at the back of the class, the children take turns to share their concerns with the rest of the class: ‘Maria reports she is happy because her presentation for the following day is ready. Frank bemoans the fact that he has had to return his defective Play Station 2 to the store. The boys in the class groan. After each student speaks, the entire class says “Thank you” to the student who has shared. One boy explains he’s happy because over the weekend his family surprised his father with a birthday cake ... Ms. Oblad is also invited to share ... She registers her pride in the fact that her class posted a 100 percent attendance the previous month ... This is all she has said during this ten minutes activity. Her nine-year-old students have run the entire affair themselves,’ comment the authors, approvingly.

The fact that the students take charge of the lesson, as far as possible, is considered textbook practice by education authorities in the UK and, I am sure, in the US. However, what looks like an attempt to encourage children to become more independent is in fact a subtle exercise in emotional and psychological control. What schools are doing is teaching children subservience to the amoral script provided by the authorities. While any curriculum is necessarily informed by particular values, the current emotional manipulation of children teaches no particular value except for the value of conformism. It teaches unquestioning respect for the emotions and sensitivities of others, irrespective of values like truth, justice or equality. It also teaches unquestioning respect for the rules and regulations that are put in place in order to enforce conformism or, their advocates would say, in order to protect the vulnerable from hurtful others. In other words, it teaches children to avoid moral judgment and to follow the rules unquestioningly.

Power without authority

The teacher ought to be there first and foremost as an expert who can pass on her subject knowledge to children, though also as an adult who can enforce sensible rules of behaviour in class and sometimes give more general life advice to children (who are free to take it or ignore it). In contrast, Western education systems are increasingly being used to transmit a new model for the exercise of power which can dispense with authority. This model pervades society, having trickled down from the highest reaches of government at a time when every one in a position of power, big or small, tends to avoid judgment and responsibility and looks for ‘objective rules’ to tell them what to do in every possible circumstance. In this model, behavioural rules must appear as if they originate from no one in particular, as if they have fallen from the sky and cannot be questioned.

Dave Eggers et al provide two good examples of this kind of outsourcing of power. One is applied to children and one to adults. Their ideal teacher, Jonathan Dearman, taught, among other courses that have nothing to do with a traditional curriculum based on subject knowledge, a class ‘simply called Leadership,’ which taught ‘the interpersonal skills needed by people who lead different kinds of communities and groups – building consensus, for instance, or mediating conflict’. And Dearman practised them too, as a teacher: ‘though his rules were rigid [...] he offered students the kind of empathy they would more likely find in a peer than a teacher’. Dearman explains his method of exercising power: ‘what I would do is divest myself from the rule, even though I put the rule there. I would say, “You’re going to fail if you don’t all work together on this project.” Later I would sit down at the table with them and say, “Man, yeah, that sucks, you might fail. How are we going to do this? How are we going to figure this out so you pass?” He smiles at the genius of his ploy, a pedagogical tool he learned watching his daughter’s preschool teacher mediate a dispute over a tricycle.’

There is no distinction here between methods one might want to use with five-year-olds and other, more grown-up and rational ways of resolving disputes. But this is nothing compared with the next example, in which adults (teachers and administrators) are given the circle-time treatment.

In the section called ‘Success in Reform,’ the case study number 3, entitled ‘Better Schools in Helena, Montana – Now, Educators Clamor to Teach There,’ tells of how administrators managed to raise teachers’ pay ‘without costing the district or taxpayers a penny more than they were already spending.’ Such miracles happen, according to the authors, ‘when district administrators and union officials decide to become leaders in the area of salary reform.’

Strangely, for the authors, becoming leaders means having a third party, a ‘consensus guru,’ in charge of negotiations. When the two parties met to discuss, ‘it was unlike any previous negotiation’. The first novelty is that they cannot sit at the bargaining table. ‘There literally wasn’t one. They also didn’t have notes, and they sat in a circle. These were all characteristics of the consensus-based process the board of trustees had suggested and to which the union somewhat skeptically agreed.’ For years, teachers and administrators had started from different positions and negotiated a contract, but now, ‘with the facilitation of the consensus guru who trained the administrative team, negotiators began by talking about their concerns and goals.’

This is how one of the administrators describes the process:

When you take away the table and you take away the notes and there’s just you and there’s just the group and you’re just there with one another, you don’t have something to hold on to, physically, so that allows you emotionally and psychologically to let go and explore new ideas.

Always under the guidance of the facilitator, our delegates in Montana start the proceedings by talking about ‘their worst fears.’ For most people, apparently, the worst fear is what happened ‘176 miles away, in Billings, where teachers had just broken off bargaining and gone on strike.’ The administrator continues: ‘We all said, “We can’t go there. There has got to be a better way.”’

Having raised a worst case scenario to focus everyone’s mind, since any deal must seem good compared with one’s worst fears, the facilitator asks them to concentrate on what they do want to see happen. Teachers think that the starting salary should be $30,000, which represents a 22% rise. Since there are a lot of veteran teachers on a high scale, this is far too costly. After six days of negotiations, the solution is that teachers’ pay will indeed start at $30,000 and top at $65,000, but the whole deal won’t cost a penny because –surprise, surprise – the district will hire more newly qualified teachers and get rid of the most expensive ones by ‘encouraging some of these people into early retirement’.

While the authors portray themselves as great champions of teachers, they don’t seem to have many qualms about effectively firing people who have served the profession all their lives as soon as they are deemed too expensive. The needs of the ‘community’ and care for the children and the vulnerable are often used to lend a caring face to the most ruthless behaviour. While in other parts of the book the authors seem to value teachers’ experience, here they ignore it in favour of ‘efficiency’.

But the main point is not that the administrators are using psychotherapeutic techniques to twist teachers’ arms and ease through an unfavourable pay deal. The worst thing about the whole process is that, from the moment third-party guidance is accepted, everyone, even the administrators, renounce their own responsibility, their roles as public actors embodying society’s wider interests, to become private, diminished citizens. When delegates are deprived of the table, they are symbolically deprived of their public role, their autonomy and their right to exercise judgment and make decisions affecting our common world, and they are invited to behave accordingly.

Autonomy and the exercise of judgment

The worst part of the deal is that the new pay structure is linked to a strict system of regulation, whereby administrators control teachers’ performance which is linked to students’ results and to teachers’ professional development. If they want their teaching licence renewed, teachers will have to earn points by going on professional development courses. This reflects the loss of human autonomy in pupils, which is assumed and reinforced by behaviour modification techniques. The book, therefore, assumes a double loss of autonomy, both in teachers and in pupils – now and in their future adult lives.

In fact, autonomy is not a corporate privilege to be enjoyed by particular sections of society who want to be protected from ‘accountability,’ but an indispensable element of teaching. The exercise of judgment is a requirement for a teacher, just as much as for a parent, a politician or a doctor. You cannot take it away without changing the very nature of those particular human activities.

Let’s take English, one of the main school subjects. Ideally, an English teacher should know well the English literary canon throughout its development, some of the major works in world literature, including ancient Greek and Latin epic poems such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid. And of course, you cannot know the English canon without knowing the main stories from the Bible. An English teacher should also know some of the most important literary criticism and theory, and the history of the English-speaking countries. As far as language is concerned, an English teacher should have an excellent knowledge of grammar and at least the main notions of linguistics, including socio-linguistics.

It takes many years to acquire this knowledge and to be able to teach it effectively. Yet the authors of Teachers Have It Easy are big fans of in-service-training or continuous professional development, through which administrators instruct teachers to pass on to pupils emotional-relational skills, or information on healthy eating. In a day, without ever having studied psychology or nutrition, teachers are supposed to learn how to teach children about the correct psychological or emotional state or how to follow a balanced diet, while the discipline they have spent their life studying and teaching is considered almost irrelevant to their job. Like salesmen, teachers are invited to learn quickly the specifications of the latest product / government initiative from a brochure or a one-day course, and then sell it to pupils and parents.

Ofsted inspections in the UK, continuous observation and evaluation of teachers, points systems to renew teachers’ licences, performance-related pay or any number of one-day professional development courses are no substitute for a teacher’s knowledge of her subject. Anyone who seriously wanted to improve the quality of education would demand that teachers know their subject well and that they have the professional autonomy necessary to pass on their knowledge to their pupils. This means also having demanding courses and rigorous examinations at school and university level. Yet, in the UK we have an education system where an A-level student can get top marks in English and English literature while ignoring most of the English grammar and of the literary canon. We have university graduates in English who have usually studied either language or literature, but not both.

The Aim of Education

It is clear that the authors consider social control and preparation for work to be the main aims of education, rather than intellectual development. In a chapter threateningly entitled 'Pay Now or Later,’ they maintain that the right kind of teaching, properly rewarded, would reduce criminality, unemployment and Medicaid costs. Yes, their analysis is that simplistic. 'If more people could read well enough to be employable, fewer of them would fill welfare rolls and more of them would pay taxes, thus decreasing the burden on society,’ they argue, turning the problem on its head, from unemployment (a socio-economic problem) to unemployability (a personal failing). Some people, apparently, are not even fit to work at a supermarket check-out as ‘they cannot reliably operate a cash register’, not even as cleaners, as they can’t read ‘the instructions on a bottle of cleaning solution.’

The kind of education favoured by the authors is remarkably unambitious. After thirteen years of education, they expect, 'at a minimum, an employable, skilled individual who can read, write, communicate with co-workers, and count change accurately.’ Surely, even at a minimum, we should expect more than a docile, ‘employable’ individual? This kind of education would be fit for a slave, rather than a citizen of the free world.

How can schools help reduce the costs of keeping so many people in US prisons? By teaching decision making skills! Excluding ‘violent offenders and people with criminal pathologies', schools can help reduce the bulk of the US prison population which, according to the authors, is made up of two kinds of people: those who lack employability skills and make the wrong economic decisions, such as people 'convicted of drug dealing, property crimes, and prostitution;’ and those who are in prison for possession of drugs, ‘a crime often associated with poor decision-making skills.’

The authors' argument should be found guilty on two counts. Firstly, it is unbelievably naïve to suggest that those who commit crimes do so because they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their decisions. Secondly, the idea that the exercise of human judgement can be taught in school as a simple 'skill' and that people’s behaviour can not only be controlled but also pre-programmed for the rest of people’s lives, must be based on an idea of human being that is closer to an unthinking automaton than to a person endowed with free will.

Not a word is said on the most important aim of education, namely, passing on the knowledge accumulated by humanity, through millennia of discoveries, struggles and achievements, to the next generation, the newcomers to this world. In this, the authors of Teachers Have It Easy are absolutely in line with the developments that are transforming both politics and education into behaviour management in the West. They see the role of the education system as one of teaching pupils the correct behaviour in order to stay out of trouble and maximise their potential to achieve emotional and economic wellbeing. They envisage a society of consumers who learn to adopt conformist attitudes, making life easier for everyone and minimising social disruption: everyone ‘embraces change’ without having any control over it.

There is no doubt that Eggers et al are in favour of change and against tradition. Indeed, they accuse those who are sceptical about performance-related pay and other reforms of fearing change. They want to get rid of old ways of doing things, have a vision for a better society, with more people in employment, leading fulfilled personal lives (though disconnected from the public realm), and fewer people in hospitals and prisons. They want to achieve gains in efficiency and productivity, which have traditionally had huge beneficial effects for society. They want a better organised, more rational society where people are efficient producers and satisfied consumers. They think they can achieve this by introducing the discipline and methods of modern industrial production into the public sector and by using education to shape future citizens so that they have the correct skills, behaviour and attitudes.

This is also the direction in which politicians of all political persuasions are going in the UK and the US. The trend is perhaps best embodied in education, in George W Bush’s major bipartisan piece of legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, echoed in Britain by Blair’s Every Child Matters, where the main aim of education becomes the general wellbeing of the child, rather than intellectual development and the acquisition of knowledge about the world. But this has nothing to do with education itself, and the love of knowledge that inspires people to enter the teaching profession in the first place. Teachers never have had it easy, but as long as they have their professional integrity, they at least have the satisfaction of passing on that knowledge to the next generation. The emptying out of the profession endorsed by this book threatens to make teaching indistinguishable from innumerable other soul-destroying jobs. No doubt teachers do deserve better money and prestige, but we need to grant them these things as teachers, not salesmen.

Michele Ledda is an English teacher working in the north of England.


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