Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Teacher Rant: Incentive Pay

I want to talk for a few minutes about teaching, seeing that the school year is about to get going.  If you are unaccustomed to my little rants, you should be forewarned I get a little testy, so continue at your own risk.

In the above video, the young girl interviewing Matt Damon tries to get him to agree that incentive pay for teachers is a good thing.  I am certain it was part of a documentary or feature aimed at explaining that celebrity and conservative thinker alike believe teachers should think incentive pay is a marvelous way of paying teachers and should have no reservations against said policy.

The interviewer's premise is that as an actor, Matt Damon wants to get work and get paid more money.  As such, it is in his best interest to work harder and become a better actor.  The result of course is that as a better actor he will get hired more, be in more films, and get more money.  Thankfully, Matt Damon rejects her premise.  He does so on two fronts.  First he says that he isn't an actor to get a lot of money.  Secondly, he tells the interviewer that she is contextualizing the question from the limited perspective of capitalism.

This is where I start in.  Matt Damon is 100% correct.  People who think my motivation for teaching is rooted in so-called easy money really have no understanding of what teachers do or what teaching really is.  My desire to teach comes from a love of interacting with others on a critical thinking level which cannot be matched in any other job field.  I am utterly in love with the tiny little moments of epiphany and self actualization I see when teaching English and history.  I have a strong sense of justice and I want to see people who would normally not have an even chance at learning succeed.  I want them to feel what it is to succeed, integrate a concept, and grow curious.  I can't get those things in the business world.  I could be a lawyer, but that involves working with people who have already made up their minds.  I want more in my heart and mind, and I don't mind so much that I don't get as much in my wallet.

What do I get in return for being a teacher?  I get about 10 weeks off each summer (and by the way I would love to teach year-round school if it was the option given to me) to depressurize myself from all of the emotional baggage that comes with dealing with teenagers for 180 days in a classroom setting.  I am okay with the burdens of teaching like the potshots I get from non teachers, the over-used joke that those who can, do and those who can't, teach.  I even put up with disgruntled parents who think I have something personal against their little ray of sunshine.  You know why?  Because I know most people simply don't know what they are talking about, because aside from their stint as a student, the only thing classroom related most people ever take away from education (other than abiding belief they know everything that is wrong with education) is the rock-solid knowledge they themselves never want to be a teacher.

My wife has been saying this for years and I think it's about the best way to put it:  "Teachers should not be forced to adhere to the incentive based pay-scale because our children are not products.  Even to call them students creates an inaccurate dynamic.  If we could predict with certainty what they are going to do, then the term student might be apt, but we cannot.  They are human and there is no way to predict what the end result will be."

Amen.  We cannot look at teaching as if it was a business or quantitative end sum endeavor.  Education is simply the opposite.  People should be looking at education as programming.  Not programming with general knowledge and a set number of formulas to be tested on a proficiency exam at the end of twelve years, but programming in the sense of an operating system.  We cannot predict who a person may become and we shouldn't try.  I see my priority as a teacher to get my kids to think critically.  To have a base of knowledge, yes, but use that base as a null hypothesis to check against what he or she will encounter down the road.  Listen, I would love to be able to get 25 kids in my classroom, show them how to do something once and have it stick.  I could cover the entire curriculum if that was they way it worked.  I could teach how to organize an essay once, or I could show them how to compare two opposing ideas such as Locke and Hobbes' view on government and then move on, confident in the knowledge all 25 know how to do those things in the future.  But there is a reason I have to do those things over and over, that teaching history has to be more than having my classes read from the textbook.  It's because I have to accommodate 25 different ways of interpreting the information, and again, that is necessary because I am not dealing with products being assembled, I am dealing with people.    Another reason why comparing kids to end-result products is absurd:Because everyone in that room is at different stages of cognitive ability, maturity, and physiological wiring.

My pay should not be incentive based because my real incentive is actually to get my classes to think critically and very few politicians are interested in supporting evaluations which accurately measure that skill.  Too many politicians (and unfortunately regular citizens) seem to think public education is a failure.  I see it as one of the greatest success stories in American history.  Millions of Americans who might normally not have access to an education have instead gone on to great things because they were afforded the dignity in the premise that everyone deserves the opportunity to receive an education.  Not only is it a boon to the economy for people to be educated, it is healthier, which creates a boost in the standard of living across the spectrum.

And lest we forget---many of the people who are decrying our public education system, the same ones who think they know how to fix it all by adjusting one component in the equation, are products of public education.  If their critical thinking skills are up to the standard and their ideas are sound, then why was the public education system good enough for them but not the kids who are in the system now?  Why are teacher unions now worse than thirty years ago?  Why are teachers now suddenly greedy and soulless?  What has changed? Have the teachers changed?  No.  Teachers have long been on the low end of the professional spectrum when it comes to pay and respectability.  Is it the kids?  No.  For centuries the older generations have been complaining about the lazy minds of the younger generation---written records dating back to Ancient Greece bear this out.  So what is it?

What do I think?  I think the answer has something to do with the instant gratification we have grown accustomed to in the past few decades.

The education system doesn't work in it's current state?  It must be the teachers because I don't want to do anything about it myself.

Think about this:  If you want the answer to a question now, you go on the internet and look it up.  Do you need to think it through?  No.  You just look it up.  If you can't find the answer within five minutes, you e-mail somebody and they will have the answer.  This does two things.  One, you get lazy and trying to solve problems like education becomes a one variable problem.  It must be the teacher.  But it does something far more dangerous. It gives the illusion that learning isn't a big deal, what teachers do in facilitating skills and knowledge is becoming outdated.  If you think the end sum of an education is trivia and rote information, then why do you need a teacher?  Why do you kids need a teacher?

Teachers must be in it for the money and they are just being lazy.

No, it didn't start with the internet, but it has become more fashionable to vilify teachers since the advent of the internet.  Well, stop it.  Education in the U.S. is messed up, but I will tell you now that to think teachers are the problem because we don't want incentive based pay, then you are simply an idiot.

One last thought: if incentive based pay was the law of the land, then I would be in fear of my life, because I would be making more than $80,000/year.  I am just that good!


  1. Educational reform is a wicked problem. And it's extremely annoying when people blame teachers and think that one-shot solutions such as incentive pay are going to fix it.


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