Stop Talking About Teachers As If They’re Missionaries
When Lisette Partelow embarked on a new career in 2012, she had all the props of an elite Washington professional: an Ivy League degree, management responsibility, challenging work, and a paycheck that placed her—in her first year on the job—in the top 25 percent of US salaries. Yet when she told people about her work, the response was very different than the one that awaited her attorney husband. "The reaction was 'Oh, that's cute,' " she remembers. " 'You must be sweet. But kind of dull.' "
Partelow, as it happens, was a teacher. And our standard narrative about teachers has long held that they're underpaid and underappreciated—selfless, perhaps, but not exactly aspiring masters of the universe.
That narrative isn't true anymore, at least not in the District. Over the past decade, DC Public Schools has radically changed how it rewards teachers—and what it demands in exchange. Teachers who work in low-income public schools and get strong performance reviews can earn more than $125,000 after fewer than ten years. They can buy houses and cars, which is as it should be. Last school year, DC's median teacher pay was $75,000, which means most teachers earned as much as other college-educated professionals.
Money isn't the only new feature. District teachers can now influence policy and curriculum. They can apply to become master educators, who formally evaluate teachers and provide targeted feedback. On paper at least, teaching in the nation's capital finally looks like an aspirational profession.
But we're living in a strange interregnum, when the vernacular hasn't kept pace with reality. Many people still talk about teachers as if they volunteer in a soup kitchen—as if the hardest part is just showing up. It's a subtle bias, born of good intentions, says Hope Harrod, DC's 2012 Teacher of the Year.
"When I tell people I'm a teacher, they say, 'Oh, my gosh—that's God's work. Thank you.' " She appreciates their gratitude, but the implications wear on her. "What they're basically saying is 'Thank you for doing that job so that I don't have to.' "
When this happens, Harrod searches for a way to correct the mistake. "They're missing that I am not actually sacrificing to do this. I'm working extremely hard because I believe in this intellectual journey—for my students and also for me. It is deeply engaging."
…Changing the way we talk about teachers isn't just about massaging the egos of people like Partelow and Harrod—it's about uplifting our educational system. If you boost the status of a job, you can attract and keep more great people. That has started to happen in DC, which now retains about 92 percent of its highest-ranked teachers.
But the biggest transformation will be cultural. As more people see teaching as prestigious, other magical changes follow: Parents begin to trust teachers a little more. Taxpayers start to believe their money is well spent. Politicians step aside so teachers can shape what's taught and how. Most important, kids notice, too. When they hear stories about how hard it is to become a teacher and see the respect with which teachers are treated, students start to infer that school isn't a joke after all—that when adults say education is important, they might actually mean it.