Friday, February 6, 2015

The Strange Life of a Teacher

My wife has a really cool job. She is an "interventionist." No, she is not in favor of an aggressive foreign policy, rather she works with small groups of elementary school students who are struggling with math or reading, giving them extra help in what is called a "pull out" program. Thirty minutes at a time, she works with 2 or 3 kids, giving them extra instruction where they need it most. She does this with kids from K through 5th grade. She loves the kids and they love her, and she is incredibly good at what she does.

She is not considered a full time employee. She gets no benefits. She gets paid by the hour and her hours are from 8 to noon, 5 days a week. Anyone who knows Pam probably knows what I'm about to say because...well it's just who she is. When it comes to teaching and children, Pam has no idea what a clock is. While this is also true for most teachers, at least they are paid a salary with benefits. My wife shows up before the kids arrive and gets home between 4 and 5 in the afternoon every day, meaning she gets paid for roughly half of the hours she works.

Every year it's something else, some new initiative from the central office or worse, the Department of Education. This year it's something called "progress monitoring" which as best I can tell involves an insane amount of testing and then entering the results into some Rube Goldberg computer program. It's all very complicated and labor intensive. So, in order to get it all done she either has to use paid instruction time, robbing the kids of actual, you know...instruction, or spend three unpaid hours every afternoon logging in meaningless data into her computer to satisfy the blood-sucking bureaucrats of the education mafia who dream up these schemes.

Well, yesterday she sent me an email informing me that her Principal had singled her out for praise since their school was leading the entire county in the accuracy and consistency of the progress monitoring reporting, or some such thing. The person in charge of the initiative had taken the time to call and heap praise upon the stellar interventionists. Pam was so excited, pointing out that since she can never get a bonus or anything like that, a pat on the back meant so much.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is wrong with education in this country. The best the overachieving teacher can hope for is a "pat on the back." Well, that and 5 bucks will get you a cup of fancy coffee at Starbucks. Congratulations.

I know, I get it...great teachers don't teach because of the money. But can't we come up with a way of identifying and rewarding the best ones? And I'm not talking about some $1000 gift certificate to Teach N Things. Yes, identifying great teachers isn't easy, there are so many variables to consider, not the least of which is parental involvement. But, we can put a man on the moon yet we can't come up with a way to reward excellence in the classroom? What's more important for the future of our country, investment banking, or identifying, rewarding and attracting truly great and gifted teachers?

I've been a business owner most of my adult life. My world is one that is driven by incentives, and return on investment. And while education is no business, the people who work in it are human beings and last time I checked human beings respond to incentives. Would it kill us to offer bonuses, luxury paid vacations, or maybe paid sabbaticals to the best of the best, however defined? Wait, you say that education budgets are tight and there's no money? How about we elliminate 10% of the jobs at the central office and use the savings to fund my teacher enrichment program? I've never met an enterprise in the business world that couldn't be made infinitely better by taking a meat ax to the home office. Education is no different and in fact is probably worse.

Meanwhile, my wife and thousands of other educators like her will have to settle for a "job well done" pat on the back.