Since I was an elementary schooler, I have gone back and forth about the idea of becoming a teacher. As a young kid, I loved school and thought that it would be really rewarding to devote my life to giving students continuous outlets and tools for personal and academic growth. I grew up watching my mom, a kindergarten teacher, make lesson plans, cut laminate, spend hours scoring three-page storybooks and so on. It looked like a lot of work, but it also looked like a lot of fun. For many of my elementary and middle school years, the latter perception won out and, when people asked me what I wanted to be once I grew up, I would often say I wanted to be a teacher. At some point in high school, the smiles and encouraging words I had previously received to this answer morphed into hesitation, worry and judgment. My mom told me, “Olivia, I’ll support you no matter what you do, just don’t be a teacher.” This past summer, my cousin, a high school English teacher, gave me the same advice. I hated hearing that she loved her job but had to deal with the struggle of being perpetually overworked and underpaid. Both of these teachers in my life are familiar with the late nights, the ungrateful students, the difficult parents and the general lack of appreciation and respect that come along with this career. And their concerns have merit: 60% of employees in teaching occupations report feeling “used up” by the end of their workday. Neither of them wants that for me.
Despite the negative connotations around working in education, these careers are the backbone of societal development. In a University of Sydney study, teachers and parents were found to be more influential in an adolescent’s academic outcomes than said adolescent’s interactions with their peers were. Given the amount of time students spend with their teachers completing their primary and lower secondary education, which averages 8,884 hours in the U.S., this impact is unsurprising; many young children spend less time awake at home than they do at school. If teachers play such an integral role in the development of the minds of tomorrow, why aren’t they recognized — socially or financially — for that role? Considering nearly 60% of people in an Ipsos/USA Today survey think that teachers are underpaid, the root of this problem should not be entirely placed on unawareness of financial disparities in education. However, this awareness does not change the fact that teachers in the U.S. are paid, on average, 20% less than other professionals with similar credentials. It’s hard to convince skilled young people to knowingly go into a career that makes lower salaries than they could earn at a number of other professions in their grasp. As if the lower salaries aren’t enough discouragement, teachers in the U.S. are also less respected than teachers globally. In the 2018 Global Teacher Status Index, participants from 35 countries were asked to rank 14 professions according to level of respect. Between participants from these 35 countries, teachers were ranked seventh. However, between U.S. participants, teaching was ranked lower, resulting in the 12th lowest average ranking out of the 35 countries.
I frequently see this lack of respect for teachers in response to expressing interest in working in education. I’ve commonly heard, “you could be so much more than a teacher,” or “good luck getting by on a teacher’s salary,” or, my personal favorite, “you’re too smart to be a teacher.” And this kind of discouragement seems to be rubbing off on students in America: Teachers in the U.S. are drawn primarily from the 60% lowest-achieving college graduates, as opposed to pulling from the top third of college graduates, as is the case in countries leading in education such as Singapore and Finland. Even still, the idea that someone could be “too smart” to be a teacher is paradoxical to me. Every parent wants smart and capable teachers to be teaching their children. And yet, most parents of smart and capable children don’t want them to become teachers. This dichotomy indicates that many people understand the importance of quality educators, but not the steps that we need to take to produce more of them.
None of this is new information; there are countless articles on why teachers in America deserve more respect. However, as I perpetually run into comments like these, this point is worth emphasizing. Regardless of any statistics, most students I know have at least one teacher who has had a lasting impact on their life. Some, like me, have several. My elementary school librarian made me fall in love with the worlds I could visit within novels. My Advanced Placement Literature teacher is the reason I’m now an English major. Sometimes they even stick out in a negative way, such as my senior government teacher. His remarks from three years ago, telling me I’m going to burn out in college still occasionally ring in the back of my head. Obviously, the impacts teachers have are not always positive, which is even more grounds for appreciating all of the talented, devoted and passionate teachers there are in the American education system. We need to pay and treat them better, or at the very least stop discouraging our children from becoming them.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.