Teaching as Self-Sacrifice

Like everyone else, I’m heir to the prejudices of my culture. So even though I know firsthand that teaching is a profession, on some level I see it as an act of self-sacrifice, as a hard path undertaken for the greater good.

This might not sound like a prejudice. Not a damaging one, anyway. It paints a generous portrait of teaching as noble and virtuous—a useful antidote to the too-common caricature of educators as lazy, union-fed bureaucrats. This ethic of “the greater good,” in fact, helped draw many of us into the profession. What we lack in salary and prestige, we make up for in civic-mindedness, in moral conviction, in feeling we’ve taken a high road through our professional life.

But all this high-mindedness has a dark underbelly. In painting the choice to teach as an act of self-sacrifice, I believe that we may harm our schools more than we help them.

First, most folks don’t want to sacrifice themselves—at least not for a whole career. Lots of good potential teachers will take a pass on the profession as long as teaching’s selfless nobility remains a selling point. That’s part of why Teach for America only asks for a two-year commitment—not because short stints are better for students, but because it’s the surest way to get hordes of ambitious young people to give teaching a try. Devote two years to the greater good? “Sure!” Two decades? “No thanks. I’ve got my own life to live.”

Second, this notion of self-sacrifice ties into the wild swings in motivation teachers sometimes feel. First, there’s the despairing cry of the martyr: “I shall be a teacher first, and a person second!” We promise to stop being so selfish—what with all our sleeping, eating meals, and occasionally watching Netflix. No more! If our job is to sacrifice, then sacrifice we must.

Soon comes the backlash. After a few exhausting months, burning fumes for fuel, we slide into a self-justifying complacency: “Hey, this is practically volunteer work. I’m a good person just for showing up. No need to kill myself trying.” We’re burned out.

Ruminating on our own self-sacrifice rarely provides stability. Mostly, it keeps the pendulum of our moods forever swinging.

The third problem is that we tend to see charitable, self-sacrificing work as unskilled labor. Helping in a soup kitchen, for example, takes no fancy degree or expensive licensure. Because it’s all about self-sacrifice, you get full marks just for showing up. But this couldn’t be further from the reality of teaching. Even folks with enviable instincts in the classroom need years of practice, reflection, and support to endure the climb from “adequate teacher” to “great teacher.”

Finally, in seeing teaching as charitable work, we risk edging people out of the profession. For folks like me—with no debt, a financially supportive family, and no pressure to fulfill a parent’s dream of upward mobility—teaching’s low salary and low prestige pose no big problem. But that’s less true for folks like Amanda Machado, with student loans to repay, no safety net, and the burden of a family’s expectations and aspirations.

The country needs teachers like Machado, who wrote eloquently about this dilemma even as she left the profession. We need teachers who understand where poor and underserved children come from, who can grasp instinctively the patterns that a privileged transplant like me needs years to figure out. But when others have sacrificed for your sake, making a dramatic sacrifice of your own can feel—paradoxically—selfish and ungrateful.

Okay, real talk: I’ve got no solutions. If you come to “Math with Bad Drawings” expecting answers to the big questions confronting our democracy, then you’ve got another thing coming (namely, stick figures debating which number is truly the loneliest).

But I know this much: The teaching profession doesn’t always benefit from its perception as a vast community service project. It ought to be seen as just what it is: a profession. Raising salaries will require political muscle, but raising prestige can start now. It only demands that we inspect our biases when they surface. It demands that I muffle the voice that whispers, “How noble of you to teach, when you could’ve done so much better for yourself,” even when I don’t want to admit that the voice is, in some way, my own.

EDITS: Tweaked some word choices to clarify the argument, in response to some thoughtful comments on Twitter. I’m still struggling to find quite the right language for my thoughts (which are themselves still evolving). More to follow soon.

105 thoughts on “Teaching as Self-Sacrifice

  1. I love your arguments and I love your drawings! I like teaching and I want to stay a teacher, but it’s definitely hard to get others to see how much I do. I think you’ve highlighted the aspects of the career that sap so much of my energy and self-worth. I’m a third-year Australian Science teacher, and for me, I am still trying to get the work/life balance sorted out. There’s always constant regret for me too, because I miss being a Scientist and part of me resents having to stand by and watch my friends acquire PhDs whilst they watch me repeating the same Science over and over. Some more respect and enough pay to allow me to buy a house and raise my own kids would be excellent.

  2. Excellent post! Whether you’re a maths teacher, science teacher, Spanish or an ESL teacher, it’s hard work. I wholly agree with what you’ve said! 🙂 Happy teaching!

  3. What an amazing post! Growing up I wanted to be a nun, a teacher or a social worker (well really just a counsellor to comfort people)…I chose the 3rd as my second career…life got in the way to finish my degree. I persevered and believed that some day I would do it because of several amazing teachers that believed in me and pushed me to do the best I could. Even in university I met amazing professors that inspired me and believed in me. Teachers shape our minds and our souls. I never go to teach…but my son is a high school teacher, so the dream came true:)

  4. Love this. I wrote a piece for Teacher’s Appreciation Day (http://wp.me/p2RsU0-BD) that always falls on Valentine’s Day…how appropriate, eh? As a parent, we would made a lovely meal for the teachers at the school to show them how much we all appreciate their selfless labour…a true vocation. May I reblog your post?

  5. I have been a Special Education Teacher for the past 13 years. Recently, I entertained the idea of returning to school to pursue a different career – Law. I hung around a courtroom for a day and that was all it took for me to realize that teaching this population of kids is my calling. I deal with the law everyday…and I am on the frontline for societal issues such as domestic violence and society’s perceptions and acceptance of people who live with disabilities. Teaching has become almost completely data driven where I am, which has both good and bad points. It is DEFINITELY NOT a field for the unqualified!

  6. This way amazing. This is my second year in the classroom, i do LOVE teaching and believe in it, but I question how much longer I can sustain this level of work. I have so many questions and concerns about choices that are made that make NO sense, but being so new to the career I have no way of knowing how to address those. I appreciate you giving a voice to my exhaustion.

  7. I read all of your blog post. They are all really fun and interesting. I can tell you are a really good teacher. That being said, I think this perception that teachers don’t get paid well is non-sense. At least in California there are many school districts that pay their teachers a lot.

    Orange County Public Teachers on average make $77,862 per year. That’s for 9 months which equals $103,816 for a 12 month salary plus another $10,000 average for medical benefits.

    The average pension for Orange County Public Teachers are about $50,000. To make $50,000 guaranteed a year would require a fund earning like 2% of $2,500,000. The average employee works about 25 years. So essentially they are saving an additional $100,000 per year in a retirement fund to give them their pension. Plus teachers get medical benefits after retirement from the government as well (let’s say about another $10,000 per year although I bet it’s higher since these people are older).

    So adding this all up we get the average teacher in Orange County making $223,816 per year (~$112/hour)!!!!

    Yep, teachers are definitely underpaid.

    Average Salary:

    Benefit Cost:

    Average Pension:

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for reading.

      My sense of teaching salaries is that they’re tricky to compare to other professions, because of two inherent tradeoffs in teaching. First, starting salaries are lower, but end-of-career benefits are higher. Second, the workyear is shorter, but you’re paid correspondingly less. Because of this, the most useful comparisons are international and historical. International comparisons suggest that America is about average in its teacher compensation packages, although it’s below average when you take into account that the U.S. offers higher private-sector salaries. Historical comparisons suggest that teaching salaries are slightly (but not dramatically) lower than they were 50 years ago, compared to other wages in the economy.

      Your numbers are ultimately not very illustrative. First, you’ve picked one of America’s wealthiest and least typical counties. Second, you’ve miscalculated the benefits, leading to the conclusion that a $50k/year pension costs $100k/year – a pretty crazy result, unless the average teacher’s retirement is more than twice as long as their teaching career.

      1. You are right my calculations for the pension are slightly off. My approach was to think of a pension as a gurantee money market account. Anyways, I would say I overestimate the pension by 30,000-50,000 per year. Just looking at the base salary, pension and medical they are getting paid 133,000 for 9 months of work (assuming working 25 years and retired 25 years).

        You may say that Orange County is a very expensive area and I’d agree. But I grow up here and I’m a working Engineering and make only 100,000 for 12 months and only 2 weeks of vacation a year. I have 12 years experience so I’m in the middle of my career so it’s compariable to the average salary that I’ll see in my full career assuming a 25 year career.

        My benefit package is standard 401K which only matches like 3%. So best case I’m adding an addition $3,000 to my overall benefit package. Let not even get to the difference in medical benefits while working which are much better for public teachers versus private sector engineers.

        Also I’m on salary so free overtime is common in my profession. Many engineers are expected to work 50+ hours a week.

        There are also many other benefits to teaching versus an engineer including paid continual education which also increases the teachers salary. Also, the degrees and time spent in college can be much less for a teacher versus an engineer therefore less student loan debt.

        Sorry for the rant. I just wish people would be honest that they have it pretty well off. If I knew what I knew then about this I would have became a teacher. I love teaching, but was always told it doesn’t pay. This may have been true 20 years ago, but I don’t believe it know.

        Please prove me wrong with some actual statical data.

        1. Also, the geatest harm we can do to our education system is to tell lies about how well teachers are paid. This gets back to the original posting topic. I for one would have gladly change positions and I think I would have made a great math teacher. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    2. My wife is a high school biology teacher and she is always working. Summer
      Seems to be a great time to ‘re work class material. Requirements change, new books , etc.
      let’s not forget making and correcting exams.
      education is expensive but an understanding educated population is moreexpensive

    3. A $77,862 salary does NOT equal a $103,816 salary. You really need to go back to school!
      The truth is that teachers work loooong hours during the school year, and compensate with longer holidays. Perhaps the American holiday is on the longer end of the scale, but in Norway teachers work exactly as many hours as any other profession. (Overtime excepted – but when teachers work more, they get no compensation…) OUR long holidays are just saved up unpaid overtime hours.

      1. Just for clarification – unpaid overtime is not allowed here – except if you have leadership responsibilities, but then you tend to have waaay better salaries too (say at least $170,000/year). A teacher with 7 years edu. (5 year master, 1 year teacher studies, 1 year specialization) may reach the average Norwegian salary, with seniority (after teaching for 16 years). I make about $58,000/year, which is $34,000 below the average salary.
        And let me add, Norway is a high-cost country. Everything is expensive here. A cup of coffee: $8.3. A restaurant meal: $65, alcohol not included. Food for a family of four per month: $1,100-1,700. Rent/house mortgage: at LEAST $2,000 for a 3 bedroom appartment.

        1. That stinks. You got it bad there. In Southern California teachers got it made, but if you ask them they’ll act like their are making minimum wage. Also most of there here are lazy since they can’t really be fired. I know first hand going through the system. I was a good student at a top 100 school and the teachers didn’t care at all. I would have to teach half of the chemistry and calculus class by myself. English and history was even worst. Even had teachers that would put all the pretty girls in the front row and would give them back inappropriate back massages before class started.

  8. If you enter teaching as a career (or a profession, whatever is your preference), never expect to go rich. Great teachers don’t pursue teaching just because they are looking for a great salary, it’s because of what one can learn and pass from it. It has its perks too. One can influence the lives of many whether by motivating/inspiring them to be good at their craft. Heck, self-improvement too in both parties. Also, as it deals with the passing of knowledge, it is a cooperative enterprise of learning which is in its own is very rewarding. And this should be the primary logic why teachers stay at teaching. They enjoy it. Just don’t expect to live a comfortable life of least the upper middle class. Besides, teaching provides a different kind of comfort to those who dedicate their lives to it. Also, just don’t think too much of it as self-sacrifice because that can be defeating to oneself. And thinking too much of how noble teaching is just defeats its very purpose. Never put it in one’s ego. Just do your job and keep showing up because you care for teaching, because you love it (just as others do with their work).

    1. Yeah, I think that’s a good perspective – teach because teaching is cool, not for extrinsic reasons.

      That said, it’s probably not a good situation for our country if people feel that you can’t have a financially comfortable life as a teacher. We’ll be missing out on lots of good potential teachers if that’s the case.

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  13. I am trying to write an editorial to our local newspaper (in Colorado) about this exact same issue. Specifically I was going to focus on the faux activism/righteous feeling that people acquire from sharing all of those “Thank a Teacher” memes and lists of our more inhuman accomplishments. I feel like the more people share and say those things, the more it normalizes the attitude that teaching is not a profession. I really like your word choice and was wondering if I could quote you in the column?

  14. hmm … yes, try to avoid emphasis on self-sacrifice; too close to a martyr complex.

    Aside from anything else, the attitude of self-sacrifice undermines proper indignation about the poor pay and poor treatment of teachers, which is the primary symptom of the state’s poor treatment of Education. Politicians are all too willing to meddle in teaching; but they’re more concerned with Producing Measurable Results (regardless of whether what’s measured actually means anything) and being seen to be Doing Something (regardless of whether it improves matters) than with actually ensuring a new generation grows up with the ability to Think, Learn and apply a rich understanding of many subjects to improving their world.

    The poor pay and treatment of teachers arises in large part because they *are* committed to truly educating a new generation, rather than merely enabling them to get bits of paper that’ll persuade simplistic recruiters to let them get as far as an interview for a decent job. Fighting the broken system would – in the short term – take energy away from giving the new generation the best they can get within that system; but, without that fight, you’re stuck perpetrating a broken system that fails to serve the students.

    The habit of self-sacrifice fosters a mind-set that is prone to enduring what should be resisted and, thereby, allowing short-sighted politicians and administrators to sacrifice the interests of the kids you’ll be teaching. (I’m a senior programmer. I have taught junior colleagues to resist the false heroism of the all-nigher and the other roads towards burn-out; it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad (among other reasons, because tired programmers make more mistakes) for our employer, their customers and the users, no matter how much short-sighted project managers may think sticking to schedule or budget is worth that sacrifice. Insisting on doing the job right is the only way to help the fools-in-charge learn what really matters. The privilege of knowing I can always find another job is best used in standing up to those who would make me want to leave the job I’m in; and why care about being pushed out (I’ve been there), by Power that doesn’t like to hear Truth spoken out loud, if the mistakes they’ll make due to not hearing that truth would make me want to leave anyway ?) Only when you are in the habit of standing up for yourselves, honestly recognising what it’s fair for your employer (and the kids’ parents) to ask of you and resisting what isn’t, will you develop the habit of standing up for education and the kids you’re giving it to, pushing back on the fools-in-charge when they are wrong, making sure they understand reasonable warnings about your reservations about proposals you let them implement and doing your honest best to make the most of what you accept might work after all. You know your job better than they do, whatever they ma think.

    Also: I hope teaching is rewarding, exciting and worth doing for its own sake. (I found it so the year I tutored students; albeit the pay was mostly academic, prompting my move to software.) Once you can rejoice in the work you do, it will no longer feel like a sacrifice. If it also enables you to prosper in your life outside work, you’ll have a sustainable life to be glad of.

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