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Commentary: Why Teachers Teach? — Need You Ask?

Ellie Herman | November 26, 2013

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imgres-3We talk about their success stories, the kids who text them from college, invite them to their weddings, grow up and become teachers themselves. We talk about their heartbreaks, the kids who for one reason or another don’t make it, who drop out, who disappear. We talk about their frustrations, the kids with behavior issues, the bureaucracy, the testing. Here’s what we never talk about: money.

I’ve spent the last three months talking to teachers across Los Angeles about their jobs. They’ve met with me as they swilled coffee getting ready for an early-morning class, as they spooned up a lunch of peanut butter from a jar while helping a kid study for an exam, as they sipped coffee re-heated in the microwave late in the day over papers they were grading. Not one teacher has ever complained to me about making too little money, which is astonishing especially because, as we all know, teachers do not make anywhere near enough.

The median national salary for a teacher is $52,270, which puts them below almost anyone else with a post-college professional degree: lawyers, doctors, college professors, psychologists, computer systems analysts, nurses, speech pathologists, pharmacists, loan officers and dental hygienists. There are people with a job called “compliance officers” who, whatever frightening thing they do, are making more than teachers.

I have two teacher friends in their thirties who live in the homes of relatives because they are still paying off college loans. I used to carpool with one of my fellow teachers because she could not afford a car. The fact that teachers with advanced degrees can barely even afford to rent an apartment should be a national scandal. But when I talked to teachers about what mattered most to them, money didn’t come up.

I am not saying this to perpetuate the destructive notion that teachers are missionaries and martyrs. It continues to bewilder me that many people outside of teaching are actually inspired by the low pay of teachers, as if it were some kind of merit badge without which the job would not be honorable. To which I say: “Yeah, you try raising your kids on that in Los Angeles.” We live in the wealthiest nation in the world. To claim that education is a national priority and then pay teachers less than virtually any other profession is a disgrace.

Still, money did not seem to be foremost on teachers’ minds, which is especially striking to me because in my previous job as a TV writer, making more money was a major topic of discussion. It was a primary drive for most of us, along with creative expression, having fun and getting all those jerks from your high school class to realize they were making a big mistake when they shunned you. I definitely felt the same way. When I was in TV, I wholeheartedly wanted to make as much money as possible as long as it didn’t impact the time I got to spend with my children

So if teachers are not driven by the desire to make money, why do they teach?

Over and over, their responses are similar. “I get to change lives,” Laura Press from Hamilton High told me; after over twenty years, she is still in the classroom, despite having been invited multiple times to take a higher-paid administrative job. Kristin Damo, who teaches at Locke High school in one of the lowest-income communities in Los Angeles, said: “98 percent of the time it may not feel like I’m making a difference, but when you hit that success, it doesn’t feel like anything else. The kids come back after they graduate and they tell me, you changed my life.” Hearing her, I remember a student from my first year, an exceptionally gifted boy whose grades were in the toilet, who was rumored to be gang-affiliated and who frequently ditched school. I struggled with him all year to try to motivate him, without success. I figured I’d failed, but at the end of the year, he scribbled on a good-bye card “thank you for the countless times you’ve given me hope.”

I still have that card. Every teacher has something like it. Sometimes it’s a letter or an email or a text. No matter what the form, teachers cherish them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they teach in the wealthiest community in L.A. or the poorest. A teacher in Watts named Barbara who did not want her last name used to tell me she thanks her students every day for coming to school. “I feel honored to be part of their lives,” she said.

“Teaching,” said Jeremy Michaelson at Harvard-Westlake, “requires me to be my best self every day.” Watching these teachers, I feel lucky to see them at their best. People often say that teachers are selfless, but selflessness, in my opinion, is neither sustainable nor healthy. What motivates these teachers seems more like generosity, a belief that no matter how much or how little you have, you have more than enough to give.

It sounds sentimental to say that teaching is a spiritual practice, but watching these teachers enact generosity to their students over and over — for low pay and often under very frustrating circumstances, in a culture that demands the most and provides the least, continually demanding physical evidence of the mysterious and intangible process of human growth, all I can say is that I’m humbled. And inspired.

And thankful. To the teachers that I’m following, and to my teacher friends at my former school who are still in the classroom, I’d like to take this moment to say thank you for reminding me why a life lived in a spirit of generosity is deeply worth living. Thank you for reminding me why teaching matters. Thank you for the countless times you’ve given me hope.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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