America appreciates teachers, but we don't value them
I’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?