“Teachers Don’t Do It For The Money” So…

I was at a conference last week about public sector employment law.  Interesting discussions about the legal issues the increasing scrutiny of collective bargaining, salaries, benefits, and pensions is raising.

At one point someone asked a question about teachers with the predicate that everyone knows teachers don’t go into teaching for the money.   This is another of these chestnuts it would be great to put behind us.  Of course teachers don’t go into teaching just for the money, for starters the cash compensation isn’t all that good in many places.  But while I wouldn’t file this under “true but useless” as with a lot of things in education that nugget of “insight” obscures more than it reveals.  And, if the goal is to pay teachers better than today then perhaps the profession’s advocates ought not sell it as a missionary’s line of work but rather as a profession like any other where money along with other non-monetary incentives combine to make it attractive to some people.

The question made me think about a comment I heard Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg make earlier this year at the New Schools meeting.  He was asked about why Facebook was a for-profit rather than a non-profit given all the social things it seeks to do.  You could ask the same question of Google or a variety of other companies.  Zuckerberg responded that people come to work at Facebook for a lot of reasons – to make a difference in the world, to work with highly talented people and advance their careers, because they like to write code and work with software, because it’s an exciting and dynamic company, or just to make money because it’s a lucrative place to work – or some combination of those reasons.  His point was that the varied reasons allow Facebook to attract more talent than it might otherwise.

In education the reasons are different than the Facebook example but are varied as well.  For some the security is appealing, for others the flexible schedule, the deferred compensation (pensions and health care in retirement) becomes attractive as people progress in their career, and of course working with kids or trying to make a difference for them drives people – or some combination of these and other reasons. But money matters, too, in various ways.  You see this in labor market behavior, for example, and you see it in the data about pensions and retirement decisions.  Doing it just for the money and being influenced in one’s professional choices by money are two different issues and we’d be wise to disentangle them in the public conversation about teacher pay.

Compensation isn’t just about today’s teachers, it also matters in terms of recruiting tomorrow’s.  And to paint teachers as just do-gooders who are immune to the choices and incentives that drive all of us is just another way we infantilize rather than elevate teachers in our society. Besides, in a more pragmatic and political vein, in the era of public sector belt-tightening and Tea Party demands for austerity singling out one sector and saying they don’t care about the money (and often in the same breath saying they should be paid more)  doesn’t seem like a particularly smart strategy.

30 Replies to ““Teachers Don’t Do It For The Money” So…”

  1. I think this trope is just inarticulate people (ironic, because they’re teachers) trying to say that they have professional pride in their work and have motivations independent of their contract terms and salary that drive them to be successful.

    This is true of most professionals. I work more than 40 hours a week because I take pride in what I do, I love to see a job well done, and I work in a team environment where the culture promotes extra effort. An extra 2 or 3 percent in pay at bonus time does little to change that.

    Professionals see monetary compensation in two ways: it’s a signal of how employers value our work and it’s a way to maintain a standard of living. If a pay increase or cut or lack of promotions made it difficult to live at a standard that I expect, then I’ll start hunting for alternatives. If I get passed over for a raise or promotion, then I’ll want a good reason why I’m not worthy, otherwise I find another employer who will value me more. Anything else regarding pay (a stupid incentive program that affects a bonus that I view as an extra anyway) will have no effect on my behavior.

    I don’t see why teachers would be any different. They’re just more like lawyers and scientists (ok, government lawyers and scientists) than they are like real estate agents or car salesmen.

    So to address your post: money matters to teachers, but it matters in a complicated way, just like it does for beltway pundits and other professionals.

  2. Great quote: “[T]o paint teachers as just do-gooders who are immune to the choices and incentives that drive all of us is just another way we infantilize rather than elevate teachers in our society.”

    Well said.

  3. It is far more complicated than money or altruism. I imagine that for a large percentage of teachers, location is one of the main reasons they became teachers. Every single town and community in the country has schools and teachers. Even the most remote rural areas. There are a great many teachers, myself included, who find themselves living where they are for a variety of reasons (most often because their spouse is employed in the area).

    If you are a highly educated single mobile individual who can relocate to vibrant urban areas then teaching is not going to rank particularly high in terms of salary compared to other opportunities you have available. But if you have roots in a small town or rural area and/or a spouse who is employed there then teaching is often quite a reasonable choice financially when the other options are clerking, waiting tables, or running some kind of home internet business. Many of the professions against which teaching is compared are primarily urban/suburban professions. Whereas teaching jobs are everywhere from remote Alaskan bush towns to tiny one-stop light towns in the northern plains states.

  4. For most teachers money was far from the motivating factor in determining their career choice, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to the desire to make a decent living appropriate for their education and contributions…. very well said

  5. I have heard many teachers say they did not pursue the profession for the money, but because they love children and teaching. I think this notion is changing as teachers as teachers begin to understand they can be demanding, while be nuturing. This economic crisis has demonstrated to them that job security is a thing of the past. Demanding better wages does not mean you do not love teacher, rather the opposite.

  6. This is a self-serving comment from some teachers. If not for teaching, many of them would be intellectually qualified to be camp counselors or social workers, and they’d be making less money. Put another way, many teachers have picked the highest-paid occupation that they would be capable of performing.

  7. Alex: I have to issue a rejoinder to your comment: In my experience, many teachers (especially those at the middle and high school levels) have NOT picked the highest paying job they are “intellectually qualified” to perform. I personally know teachers who were former attorneys, scientists and other professionals, and I know former teachers (such as myself) who left education to pursue other professional careers.

    I must ask: Do you feel the same way about firefighters and other public service professionals as you do about teachers? Are they just too dumb to be accountants??

  8. Alex:

    Many Americans citizens believe as you do. Is there anything more we need to know about an educational system that is less than stellar?

  9. Linda: You’re right about the attitude of many Americans — It’s depressing how many American really believe that “those who can’t, teach”. In reality, many teachers have advanced degrees and others have left more lucrative careers to work in the classroom.

  10. Yes, and sadly these people have no idea how their attitudes cause (directly or indirectly) many talented people to leave the profession during the first five years of teaching. (“Hey, I didn’t send you to Cornell to be a second grade teacher. Get your applications out.”)

    All nations (100%) with enviable systems of education, place a very high value on the teacher. Of that we can be certain.

    The current teacher-bashing, so well illustrated on this blog, tells us a lot about ourselves as a nation and what we value. Not good.

  11. Um, notice that I said “some teachers,” not “all teachers.” It’s not a refutation of my point to show that there are also some teachers who are qualified for higher-paying jobs: I carefully chose my original phrasing to allow for that possibility.

  12. Alex,
    Teachers like many others select a profession they have a passion for or what they dreamed of doing. Great works of literature were written by scholars and teachers who in their time were not seen as such. Teachers continue to take the heat for the breakdown of the family unit without holding parents accountable. A once honorable profession is not cast aside as intellectual outcasts. While the “intellects” of Wall Street are held in reverence for their intelligence, taking the American’s people money, I guess those who can do take and those who can teach make a positive difference.

  13. pgteach: Of course you are right and soon everyone will know.

    Alex: Um, notice that you wrote “…MANY teachers have picked the highest-paid occupation that they would be capable of performing.”

    I can’t speak for others, but I chose teaching because I wanted to teach young children how to read and write. That was my dream and I enjoyed every minute of it. Each day I woke up with that excitement shared only by other people lucky enough to have the perfect job for them. As the saying goes, I never had to “work” a day in my life because I loved my job so much.

    But there is a job I don’t like. When I retired I decided that I wanted to help the poor so I joined an organization at church that helps poor people. Volunteers are supposed to raise money, donate money, take calls from people who ask for help, and visit these people with checks for rent and donations of food and clothing. Well, I have discovered that I don’t mind raising money and contributing money but I don’t enjoy the “nitty gritty” of the work, which is actually interacting with the people in need. It makes me extremely uncomfortable. The people who go to the homes offer assistance and counseling in regard to the person’s future. They offer friendship and well as suggestions on how to get subsidized housing, free food and clothing.

    If no one else is available I do force myself to go, but I always beg other people to take my place. I will say one thing for myself though: I’m smart enough not to bash the volunteers who go to the people’s homes. Whether I like these people or not, I know they are providing a vital service. They are doing the essential work of the organization even though the rest of us help.

    And so it is with education. Have you noticed that none (nada, zero, ziltch) of the “reformers” are teachers, or even principals? Read Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare. All his “heroes” have one thing in common: they do not teach. Some DID teach, but only for a couple of years or so. When he describes one of the founders of KIPP, Brill’s own bias comes through loud and clear: this man’s family and friends were horrified that a “Yalie” would teach in the inner-city but everyone (including Brill we surmise) were greatly relieved when he co-founded a string of charters instead. The one educator in the book quits because of burnout.

    Like me with my charity, these “reformers” might have the right intentions. If so, they should respect and support the people who are doing the actual work: teachers. Bashing teachers will only result in even fewer people choosing teaching as a career. When the current baby boomers are all retired, there will be no captive women to take their places. Common sense should tell us that the negative attitude towards teachers has damaged our educational system badly and will continue to do so. It’s time to defeat the status quo of the “lowly” schoolteacher. She deserves better and so do her students.

  14. It’s not bashing teachers to point out that the “I don’t do it for the money” line is self-serving and misleading. Many teachers got the best-paying job they could possibly get, but are constantly demanding more money.

    Look, teachers are great people most of the time, but with their low average SAT scores, many of them are not exactly passing up the opportunity to be doctors or engineers (just to be clear, some teachers are above average, and are indeed passing up higher-paying opportunities). Does anyone really think that the average Milwaukee teacher could get a $100,000 package anywhere else? (That’s what the AVERAGE teacher gets there, not just the star high school math teacher.)

    And as we see from collective bargaining and the public debate over education, teachers and teacher unions are always demanding more money for themselves, acting like it’s a huge outrage if they have to contribute a penny to their health insurance (see New Jersey), etc.

  15. Alex: I don’t know where you’re getting these salary numbers, but I highly doubt that the average Milwaukee teacher earns a 100K salary. Are you getting that number by adding in future anticipated retirement funds and/or health insurance coverage? I’d bet the typical Milwaukee teacher makes about $50K, with a starting salary in the low 30’s. Just my guess, having worked as a teacher in the DC area (where I’m sure salaries are higher than out in Wisconsin).

  16. SAT scores correlate very highly with socioeconomic background. Many teachers come from the working class because these jobs are eschewed by middle and upper income people. Children of the working class usually have SAT scores that are lower than children of the middle class.

    As the daughter of high school dropouts, my SAT scores were quite low but my sons both had almost perfect scores. Are they that much more intelligent than their own mother (possible) or did their scores correlate with their status as children of middle class college graduates (probable).

    The important point is this: the attitude that many Americans have towards teachers has been extremely damaging to our educational system. Significant improvement will come only when the majority of our citizens value education and the people who provide it.

  17. Attorney — it would help you to read more closely. When I say some teachers, I don’t mean “all” teachers. And when I say “package,” I am obviously referring to more than just salary. But yes, the average Milwaukee teacher does get a package (including benefits) that costs $100,000 per year. That is the district’s own figure for what it costs to buy health insurance, pay salaries, and pay for pensions.

    Look, what I would say to the typical teacher is this: if you’re making the most money that you would ever be qualified to earn, and your unions is demanding still more, spare me the line that you’re too noble to think about money.

  18. Alex: I do think that most American teachers should be paid more than they are today. However, my objection to your post has to do with presenting information in a misleading way: When you use terms like “100K compensation,” you must know that many people reading your post will jump to the conclusion that the average teacher earns a salary of $100k. In my opinion, this type of slanted language feeds the current (inaccurate) image that teachers get unfairly high paychecks, when in reality they usually are making around 40 or 50K a year in a typical suburban district, depending on where they’re working.

  19. It’s amazing that so many in this comment strand could manage to blather on and on about the remuneration of teachers relative to their professional status without acknowledging the highly entrenched division of labor based on sex or gender that goes back more than a century.

  20. Alex likes to walk to the edge, then take it back.

    Another reason to go into teaching is gender specific.
    There are more female teacher than male, giving guys less competition for finding a gal.

  21. So true – Compensation isn’t just about today’s teachers, it also matters in terms of recruiting tomorrow’s!

    I absolutely love my job as an educator of elementary aged children and feel blessed to have worked in the community in which I live for the past 18 years. I am fortunate that my husband is our primary “bread winner” and while my salary is needed, I do not need to fret over the bottom line.

    With that said, my daughter (a freshman in high school) is considering two careers. The first is a school media specialist and the second is a middle school social science teacher. This thrills and concerns me at the same time. I want her to have a job she loves and is passionate about as well as a comfortable life. I wonder if our legislators and community members will allow her to have both as a future educator. Will her salary be enough to live comfortably in the future? Many of the new teachers I meet and work with can barely afford rent and life necessities on their beginning salary.

    In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Modern cynics and skeptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”

    I am thankful for my teachers. They have helped contribute to the person I am today. As Ralph Waldo Emerson states, “The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.” I hope our legislators are able to see the value in the work educators to in creating the leaders of tomorrow and compensate them appropriately for the work they do. Teachers start the journey for all other professions in the work they do with students each day.

    As this blog began, “Teacher Don’t Do It for the Money…” I wonder. If we won the lottery tomorrow and were wealthy beyond our imagination, would we still work? Would we continue to be an attorney, a teacher, an administrator, a plumber? Would you do the job without the paycheck?

  22. Linda/Retired Teacher and DC Attorney, well put. I’m not sure when educators, police officers, and firefighters went under the microscope, but it has certainly happened in Ohio. I do not regret the decision I made to go into education, even though I scored well on my SATs/participated in numerous school activities/had an amazing GPA/etc….and, contrary to what some people have posted on this page, could have been anything I wanted to be when I “grew up”. I would think twice before encouraging a freshman in college to follow their dreams of being an educator today knowing what I know now.

    To answer Tracey’s question, would I teach without a paycheck? Well, the short answer is “no”, because I need the money to survive and support my family. But, as I said above, I would still go into education today knowing how little I would be making in comparision to my friends who went into business, or became dentists, nurses, or engineers. Again, I would still follow my dream, not because I wanted to make more money but because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people. What might make me reconsider my choice to go into education would be the lack of respect for educators across the U.S. and the poor perception that so many have of educators (even though they are some of the most dedicated, intelligent individuals I know).

    My question is for those who are in education and those who are in another field, would you encourage your child, who is a high school senior, to follow his/her dream of becoming a teacher knowing what you know now. Why wyould you encourage him or her and why not?

  23. Jennifer: I agree with your point that K-12 educators do not get enough respect in current American society. It does not serve our interests as a country to belittle those who are teaching this country’s children.

    I’ll share one telling anecdote: When I was teaching a class of middle-class high school students in California, I mentioned to them that I could have gone to law school but I chose to teach instead. One student blurted out, “Why would you be a teacher if you could be a lawyer?” Everyone else nodded in agreement…. Since I’ve become a lawyer, no one’s ever said to me, “Why are you working as a laywer when you could be a teacher?” I think that anecdote is a sad commentary on the level of respect we give (or don’t give) to teachers in our society.

  24. Attorney DC and Jennifer: SAT, ACT or other standardized aptitude tests measure verbal and math skills not passion or abilities. Teaching is about passing information to other in order for learning to occur. The personalities and learning styles of people are so varied and diverse that it requires experience and understanding of learning. Jennifer asked if I would encourage a child to pursue teaching and I had to think about this. Teaching was once considered to be a noble profession, but somehow this has slowly eroded. Given the high cost of living coupled with low pay teaching is not a very attractive field. I know many teachers new to the profession are working two jobs to make it, when many of their friends and classmates from college in other professions are in one. In addition they are not bring home work to be graded or spending money out of their pocket for school supplies for their students. To your answer Jennifer I am asking students to look at alternative profession.

  25. I always wondered what the teaching and school atmosphere would be like if it were treated and respected the same way that the medical profession is.

    Teachers are paid large amounts of money, but have to deliver, and if they aren’t doing a good job and their students continue to struggle then their job is at risk.
    Very interesting.

  26. I totally agree with pgteach. “Teachers are not paid a large amounts of money. Starting salary for teachers is about 40K to 50K in the public school system. You have to take A.Q courses to move up in the pay grid. Even at the top salary, Teachers are not paid a large amount of money for the work the do with a classroom of 30 + kids. After all the deductions and pension your take home pay is almost laughable. Yes we do have a huge pension but to say we get large amounts of money???? Let’s compare professions. E.g. Accountant . Yes a chartered accountant gets paid very well at least 100K + and you do not have to deal with 30+ kids and parents on a daily basis. You don’t take marking with you. You don’t spend your free time on the weekends or weekdays pre-planning school lessons.

  27. It is not that teachers get paid large amount of money for the type of work they do. However, there are some teachers out there that do not like kids and should have never entered the profession. These are the teachers that I worry about. In this case you could say they entered the teaching profession because it is just simply a job for them and not a passion. You could say that these teachers are teaching for the “money”.

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