Joe Nacca: Teaching is not a uniform occupation
Teachers are prominent news fixtures these days. Their salaries, benefits and workloads are fodder for continual argument.
However, a crucial factor is mostly ignored: The label “teacher” is generic and about as clarifying as writing about “animals” without distinguishing between a dairy cow and a cocker spaniel.
A kindergarten teacher and a high school teacher have responsibilities and workloads that are as different as those of a pediatrician and a heart surgeon (both doctors, of course). A high school physics teacher and a physical education teacher do work that is more dissimilar than similar. Teaching some disciplines requires many hours of work at home; teaching others requires hardly any work at home. One teacher may take home 120 student papers each week and spend a modest 10 to 15 minutes with each one; that works out to 20 to 30 hours.
Teaching content and teaching skills differ significantly. Consider the differences between teaching 100 students the rules of golf (content) and teaching 100 students to become proficient at the game (skills). You might reasonably assign a teacher to deliver several hourlong lectures on the rules and reasonably expect some decent results. But surely you would not expect that teacher to conduct several one-hour golf lessons with the same 100 students and produce proficient golfers.
My point is that teaching in schools is far from a uniform activity. Consider the primary school teacher who has to prepare daily lessons in five different subjects for a group of children with widely different abilities. How does that job correspond to the middle school or high school teacher’s job? Decisions on teacher compensation must be tied to decisions on curriculum design and job assignment.
Strangely enough, the extracurricular programs at most schools may be more intelligently designed to produce effective results than the curricular. Take for example the basketball team. A coach and maybe an assistant might work two to three hours daily with a squad of 10 to 15 students; generally, they increase the basketball proficiency of the players measurably. But a math teacher works with 100 or more students a day, with something like 20 students per 40-minute class session, and is expected to get similarly appreciable results.
The foregoing is not an exercise in finger-pointing at Joe Q. Public for being short-sighted in criticizing teacher compensation. The academic establishment and the Boards of Education themselves need to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach to compensation and course loads is not only unfair and ineffective but, in fact, justifies a good deal of the public outcry. While it may be difficult to judge whether teachers (and school administrators, for that matter) as a whole are paid what they deserve, it is not difficult to judge that relative to other teachers, a teacher’s pay has virtually no correlation to quantity, quality or difficulty of work either expected or performed. This must be addressed.
Trimming budgets and obtaining concessions on benefit packages is like taking two aspirin for a chronic back problem — temporary relief at best. Both the public and the school systems would do well to eschew the aspirin in favor of something more durable. A useful investment of time, energy and money would involve an honest, clear-eyed analysis of what exactly it takes to teach at various levels and in various disciplines and allocate resources (financial and other) accordingly.
Joe Nacca is a Canandaigua, N.Y., resident and a retired educator who occasionally writes guest columnst for Messenger Post Media.