Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

Occasionally, friends ask me why I teach.

You could ask the same of any profession. Why did you become a grant-writer, a therapist, a sanitation engineer? Why dentistry? Why human resources? In crude and reductive terms, I see four basic justifications for any vocation:

  1. Compensation. Take air traffic controllers. They work longish hours in a maddeningly stressful workplace, but take home excellent money (over $100,000 per year) and can look forward to a long, well-pensioned retirement.

  1. Perceptions. Compared with air traffic controllers, most professors earn less money. But they draw another sizable benefit: prestige. Humans are social creatures, invested by nature in what others think of us. High status is no small thing.

  1. Quality of life. A pleasant workplace, friendly coworkers, reasonable hours, a short commute—all those little frills around the edges of a job sometimes matter as much as the job itself.

  1. Enjoyable work. The broadest of my four categories. We draw different pleasures from our various jobs—for social workers, the altruistic feeling of helping others; for mechanics, the pleasure of solving puzzles; for trial lawyers, the adversarial thrill of the courtroom. But almost all of us find some small joy in work.

Under this framework, why teach?

Compensation? The salary is solid, and district jobs offer great benefits, but I’m certainly not “maximizing the earnings potential” (to use that leaden and calculating phrase) of my math degree. In short: not my main reason.

Perceptions? Teaching is far from high-status. To be honest, the profession’s relatively low esteem bothers me more than its relatively low pay. (I feel obligated to mention the well-worn fact that in Finland and South Korea, two countries with model educational systems, teaching is absolutely venerated.)

Quality of life? Now we’re getting closer. In Oakland, my working conditions weren’t always the best: 11-hour days, 20-minute lunches, windowless rooms, needing to budget time for bathroom breaks. But I loved my colleagues, and as anyone can tell you, the vacation schedule is fabulous. I worked—drumroll!—a 200-day year. That’s an extra eight weeks off to travel, to write, to spend with family.

But the real reason I teach? In a dozen disparate ways, I enjoy the work.

I teach because I love people, and every school is full of dynamic, interesting people—they’re called “students.”

I teach because I love ideas. My own education brought me into contact with a million delightful puzzles, questions, and connections. It gives me a kick to share them with others.

I teach because teaching is an art. Just as every good book contains a piece of the author’s soul, every good class contains a piece of the teacher’s. There’s joy in that act of creation.

I teach because it makes me smile when I can help someone reach a new understanding.

My answer mingles the romantic (because it’s beautiful, it’s sacred, it’s my calling!) with the pedestrian (because I’ve got rent to pay, and I never learned to code, and I’m addicted to summer vacation, and even though I enjoyed every subject in college I didn’t love any of them enough to pursue a PhD). So it always is. The pedestrian gets us through the day, and the romantic helps us make sense of a career.

The future is a big, misty continent, and I can’t pretend I’ve got it all mapped. But teaching pays the bills, gives long breaks, surrounds me with great people, and lets me do something I love. When picking a profession, that’s a pretty good place to start.

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13 thoughts on “Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

  1. Let’s not be spreading this business about the 200-day year. Googling “summer jobs for teachers” shows very clearly that few teachers can afford to take summers off. What’s more, this study by the Gates Foundation shows that teachers are working more than 10-hour days when they are working, counting before-school and after-school activities that are necessary, like grading homework and preparing lesson plans.

    • I dug into the numbers a few months ago, and my memory (though I’ll look for citations tomorrow) is that the typical American teacher works just under 2000 hours, which comes from roughly 40 weeks at 50 hours per week. (Some obviously work much longer.) About 40% do some significant amount of work over summers, if I recall correctly.

      So the total hours are only slightly shorter than other jobs, but the number of days is often significantly smaller. In other words, you’re concentrating your work in a smaller part of the year.

    • My wife is a bio teacher. During the school year she probably works over 60 hours between class time, creating tests, correcting papers & tests etc. Then during the summer she works on her class plans, reviews new cirriculum etc. I always joke that when she’s on vacation she only has to work 40 hours a week.
      Oh, and parents generally do not support teachers or make sure their kids are doing the work.

  2. Great story! Teaching is a great job… (and I mean that in all the respects you just described). However, as a Korean myself, I disagree with the opinion that South Korea has a model education system. What with the highest student suicide rate in the world, with most of the causes being pressure from school, I can hardly support it being implemented in other countries! I do agree that teachers are highly respected, but the teaching system is highly flawed.

    • Thanks for the perspective. You’re probably right that I shouldn’t be touting systems I don’t know terribly well – I’ll try to adjust the language in this post to something more balanced.

      • Oh no there’s no need to do that! I was just offering my opinion on the topic. Many people do believe that it is a model education system. I suppose that it being one of the highest grade averages should count for something, right?

  3. Well said! I found your blog via your recent article in the Atlantic, which was also an excellent piece. My favorite line in that article? “I can’t grow unless I see my own work with eyes that are sympathetic, but clear and unyielding.” So true!

  4. I also read your Atlantic piece, and then several of your posts on this blog. It’s so awesome!! Nearly every single post is about something I have thought/felt/seen/heard as a high school math teacher. Fortunately, I worked at a school for a year becoming a teacher and was well aware of the “lying” phenomenon before I started teaching. Otherwise, I would have felt even more completely incompetent than I did my first year.

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