America appreciates teachers, but we don't value them

CATEGORY: EducationI’ve been wrestling a bit with my career situation lately. Like a lot of folks, I feel like I’m not being compensated very well, and that suspicion is validated by some basic salary research – and also by the CEO, who admits that the company needs to normalize a lot of salaries with the broader market.

Of course, the people I work with love me and get the importance of what I do. But they aren’t making the call on salary. Not long ago, in prepping for a conversation on the subject with the person I report to, and trying to decide how best to represent my position, and trying to anticipate what he might say, it hit me.

The company appreciates me, but it doesn’t value me.

Then the other day I saw some kind of pleasant but ultimately lame “teacher appreciation” promotion, and realized that the same is true, en masse, for the entire education profession in the US, from pre-school to grad school. In the contemporary world, a society’s ability to compete in just about everything – scientific and technical innovation, business innovation, public health, and on and on – depends on making sure that every student is as smart as humanly possible. Your future is literally a direct result of your commitment to education. If the country next door starts with the same basic potential, but dedicates greater resources to developing it, the gap is going to be widening noticeably within a generation. And right now everyone in the developed world has a greater commitment to teaching than the US.

In other words, the better your teachers, the brighter your future. (Teacher quality isn’t the only variable, but it’s a huge one.) However, we entrust that future not to the brightest and best, but to whomever will do the job for what it pays (and whomever will deal with the ridiculous condition under which teachers are often asked to work). We’re lucky in that a lot of the brightest and best are truly committed to the mission and are willing to make the sacrifice. Sadly, the rest of those jobs goes to – and forgive me if I’m a bit harsh here -folks who can’t land a better paying job.

What’s that thing they say? You get what you pay for.

As I rehearsed for that conversation with the bosses (which hasn’t happened yet, but will in the next couple of months), I imagine the following exchange.

Sam: The company doesn’t value me.

Boss: That’s ridiculous. You’re incredibly important. We value you a lot.

Sam: No, you appreciate me. Appreciation is an emotion. Value is a number.

That’s where America is with our teachers. We appreciate their willingness to work insane hours, to grade three-foot-high stacks of papers over the weekend, to tolerate entitled brats who demand an A for C- work (and their equally entitled parents), to risk their lives in an increasingly violent environment, and to do so for $20k less a year than people who frequently aren’t nearly as bright as they are make in the corporate world. (I’m talking about the brightest and the best here. The ones who are doing it because they’re not capable of doing more we appreciate for managing the warehouses where we send our kids for a few hours a day to get them out of our hair.)

To phrase it in that most zen of modern banalities, it is what it is. America hasn’t gotten here by accident and where we’re going is easy to predict.

Empires rise and empires fall, and the less you understand the value of things the uglier that fall is.

But at least we appreciate the people who might have saved us, huh?


  • “Appreciation is an emotion. Value is a number.” I like that.

    I’ve also been wrestling with my value as I go through my current job search.On days when I’m feeling down about the situation (usually the ones when I find out I did not get a position I interviewed for), I consider the idea that maybe I’m not supposed to be looking for a position that pays more–maybe I’m supposed to be learning to be humble and be willing to accept a position that pays less than I was making.

    Let me dissect that. I made $56K for managing an IT department that served 900+ end users in all divisions and departments at a Catholic K-12 school. My salary was based on coming out of the classroom. My predecessor, who came out of business. made over 30K more.

    When I’m asked about my previous salary and my expectations, I qualify what I made with they nature of the institution. I KNOW, without a doubt, that I was really underpaid. But I’m not sure about overcoming that.

    Was I appreciated? Yeah, I thought I was. Until my job description was rewritten to require a network engineering background and I was let go for not having that qualification. Turns out I wasn’t even appreciated, much less valued. The ballpark pay for the new person was much closer to what my predecessor made, than what I made.

    Teaching is full of pitfalls like that. Years ago I served on a faculty committee at another Catholic school looking at wage and compensation issues. Somewhere along the way we had a “Quality Circles” process to look at teacher stress causes. We were NOT allowed to discuss the issue of salary (even though many of us worked second jobs to make ends meet): “You KNEW what you were going make when you took the job, you have to right to complain about the salary.”

    When I left Cleveland and moved to Atlanta to teach in 1999, I left a job I’d had for 10 years, professional license, and a Master’s degree. I was making $28K. Common wisdom at the time said that when you move south, you’ll take a pay cut–that’s just the way it is. I made 40% more. That jump saved me professionally.

    But, the truth is, so much of my pay since then has been based on that base that I’ll never make up for it.

    So when I worry on a bad day now about having to humble myself–that’s the nature of being humble. Can I go back to making in the 40s at mid-career?

    Do I have the self-confidence and determination to hold out for a position in which I will be “valued and appreciated,” not just “appreciated”? That’s a really good question.

  • Good luck.

  • For the record, this was a bit of a bait and switch. This piece really isn’t about teachers, it’s a very clever observation on the difference between appreciation and value. teachers belong down below as an example, along with infantry, nurses, and second string football players at sec schools, not as the lede.

    • It’s certainly true that teachers aren’t the only ones I wish were valued more highly. Heck, I spent 35 damned years wishing we valued poets.

      We all got our windmills.

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