School of Thought: It is time to restore respect to the public teaching profession

Sydney Leow | Daily Trojan

Being a public school teacher is hard. It’s one of the lowest-paying jobs in America, most people don’t respect the profession and teachers constantly struggle to secure the resources they need to teach, from pencils to reduced class sizes. It’s no wonder that no one wants to be a teacher anymore.

For several years now, schools across the country have been facing teacher shortages. Shortages lead to larger class sizes and discourage young people from pursuing the profession. They also mean strong teachers tend to gravitate to wealthier school districts for reasonable pay. But this means low-income students are left with underqualified teachers teaching large classes in communities that need high-quality education the most.

The required qualifications for teaching can also pose a major barrier for undergraduate students. Though the requirements to become a teacher at the K-12 level vary from state to state, students must generally earn a bachelor’s degree, complete a state-specific teacher education program and teach under supervision. While some schools offer bachelor’s degrees in education that satisfy most of these requirements in four years, most elite higher education institutions — USC, UCLA and Stanford among them — only offer graduate programs in education.

For students, this means spending another year or two in school and taking out more loans only to enter a profession that pays less per year than what it costs to go to school. The average teacher in California makes about $69,000 per year, and they’re on the upper end of the spectrum; teachers in smaller states like South Dakota make, on average, as little as $39,000 per year.

Usually, professions that require graduate degrees — such as business, medicine and law — are the some of the highest paid jobs in the country. We can’t expect people to want to teach when they’re asked to do so much for such little reward.

I’ve always wanted to teach at some point in my career — maybe when I retire from journalism — but knowing that I’d have to pay for two years of schooling is discouraging, especially on a journalist’s (also low) salary.

Another issue with teacher’s wages is that many schools pay their teachers based on student performance. While this seems like a good incentive on the surface, the reality is much more bleak. Standardized tests often don’t adequately represent a teacher’s ability to teach; students have different learning styles and might not perform well on tests despite knowing the material well. Though they claim to be an objective way to measure learning, standardized tests can reflect poorly on teachers who work with disadvantaged students and give an unfair advantage to teachers who work in areas where students are more well-prepared. When pay is purely based on test performance, teachers who work harder to get their students to improve may end up making less than teachers who work with high-acheiving students.

Some say that teaching is a “noble” profession. Teachers are building the next generation of leaders and scholars. But now more than ever, the nobility of teaching has diminished. Teachers are no longer seen as changemakers, or respected for providing one of the most foundational experiences in every child’s life. Without that respect, it’s easy to see why students don’t want to enter the teaching profession.

The public generally recognizes teacher shortages and the causes behind them as an issue. A 2015 EdSource poll of California voters found that 86 percent believed  teacher shortages were a serious issue, and 58 percent believed that teachers in their district were paid too little.

So at some level, the respect for teaching still exists: People recognize it as a necessity, but they don’t necessarily see themselves or their friends becoming teachers.

We as Americans must change that narrative, and start incentivizing young people to consider teaching as a viable profession. It starts — like most of the problems I’ve discussed in this column — in the classroom. We need to fund abundant teaching resources in our schools, implement smaller class sizes and ensure that teacher pay is based on experience and improvement rather than standardized test scores.

We also need to invest in grants and scholarships to allow students to complete teacher education programs without worrying about incurring even more student debt. We need to start encouraging major universities, which already offer graduate programs in education, to use those same resources to offer undergraduates’ degrees in education.

And most importantly, we need to reinstate teaching as a highly respected profession. Teachers change lives every day, and we must start recognizing their work more often. Teaching is a noble profession, so let’s ensure we start seeing it that way again.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also a multimedia editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “School of Thought,” runs every other Thursday.