Do teachers have it rougher than the rest of the working class?

MPR reporter Tim Post has a very compelling story today about the burnout experienced by teachers at the end of the school year.

It was, by all accounts, a difficult year for teachers, what with their holding a job that requires them to spend a day with dozens of kids — could you? — and having a job that puts them in the public eye and makes them easy targets for criticism.

Just one thing is missing from the complaint: A solution.

Teacher morale is eroding; that’s not new. MPR’s Daily Circuit did a show on it a few months ago, following a survey from Metropolitan Life that showed almost 1 of every 3 teachers is contemplating doing something else.

“No one wants to think that their work is undervalued or being blamed,” Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said. “The rhetoric has been so heated that it makes it hard for teachers to feel good day in and day out. ”

Wait! There are people who feel good about work day in and day out?

The Met Life survey found that fewer than half of those teachers surveyed said they were very satisfied with their jobs. That was described as the worst morale in 20 years.

But the report also said that 81 percent are somewhat or very satisfied. And only 30-some percent said they were somewhat or very unsatisfied.

Curiously, while 81 percent said they were satisfied with their work, only 54% said they were optimistic that student achievement will get any better. What do we make of 27% of teachers being satisfied while being pessimistic about the improved student achievement?

These numbers, if they can be believed, tell another story when compared to the rest of the working world: teachers have it better.

In the broader working world, only 45 percent of workers in the U.S. are satisfied in the job, down 4% from 2008, according to the Conference Board.

The American workplace has become a stressful place with a high burnout factor in the last decade as employers shed workers, and the rest of us pick up the slack, often without the help of other workers pulling their fair share of the load.

Forty-four percent of the teachers in the Met Life survey report their schools have had layoffs in the last year. Forty percent in the workforce overall have had layoffs or announced layoffs in just the last six months, according to the GlassDoor employment confidence survey.

One in every 5 American workers is concerned he/she will be laid off. One in every 3 is concerned a co-worker will be. There’s no available data that I can find for teachers in that category, especially since the state this year wrestled with a bill that would have allowed schools to lay off teachers on something other than seniority.

It may well be that low teacher morale and a feeling of being unappreciated will lead to more teachers quitting, too. But the surveys of the non-teacher working world don’t suggest that there’s a paradise out there.

A survey from the Department of Labor this week found 64% of working Americans leave their jobs because they don’t feel appreciated. So it’s entirely understandable that the reaction to our story today is, “you, too, pal?”

  • A Vee

    Thank you, Bob, for writing about something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile. I have several friends that are teachers and I try to feel sympathetic as new demands are made (bullying issues come to mind), but, as you point out, every job has it drawbacks and quirks. I became quickly annoyed with whiny teachers. My teacher friends tell me that it can become very easy to get a narrow view as a teacher because you spend so much time with other teachers (work, obviously, but many teachers’ main circle of friends are teachers, too, and several are married to other teachers). We all have struggles in our jobs and supporting, and celebrating with, each other has made it more bearable, even fun.

  • Tim in Rochester

    I think that what differentiates teachers from other workers is that teachers are vastly underappreciated for the important jobs they do. It is not just dissatisfaction with greater workloads that bothers good teachers. It is that they are expected to be great teachers under conditions that make effective teaching nearly impossible. Between unreasonable course loads, higher-than-ever student-to-teacher ratios and social problems bleeding into their work lives, it no surprise that the best and brightest are rethinking their careers.

    Good teachers care about providing quality education. It hurts them when, because of conditions beyond their control, they cannot do this. It hurts them even more when they are vilified and scapegoated. As we tighten budgets we should be aware that many excellent teachers are already stretched so thin that they can barely deliver quality education. You can only squeeze so much efficiency out of anybody.

    Are there shoddy teachers? Of course. Is the answer to pillory the entire group and rob all of them of hard earned rights and benefits? No. Do not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    If you believe that an educated citizenry matters, you should listen to and support public school teachers.

  • Mark Gisleson

    Teaching, like the ministry or medicine, is not a job, it’s a calling, and job satisfaction/burnout is a bigger issue for these folks than it is for many workers.

    In fact, you could say the same about reporters. Reading all the reactions to the Times-Picayune layoffs, it’s clear that the laid off aren’t lamenting the loss of a job so much as the destruction of a calling.

    And yes, calling is a euphemism for jobs that invariably pay less than they would if you were doing the same thing while in possession of a business degree.

  • Bob Collins

    // I think that what differentiates teachers from other workers is that teachers are vastly underappreciated for the important jobs they do.

    I hear what you’re saying, but I question the premise nonetheless. When I was soliciting “people you should meet” nominees last winter, almost every submission was someone’s teacher. It wasn’t someone’s firefighter, or cop, or doctor, or paramedic, or utility worker, or even mother or father — it was their teacher.

    //It is that they are expected to be great teachers under conditions that make effective teaching nearly impossible.

    I hear this quite often and I wonder if it’s repeated so often that we accept it as fact, just as we hear the politicians stump speeches repeat the slogans that others accept as fact. It’s hard for the layperson to understand what EXACTLY makes effective teaching impossible — class size? funding? The majority of teachers in the Met Life survey are positive on both of these things, oddly enough. The majority say parents are supportive and engaged. And yet there’s this perception that teachers are battling impossible odds to educate kids.

    So there’s a disconnect even among teachers, apparently, over the conditions under which they are to perform. I suspect that, too, is a disconnect that is not unique to teachers.

  • Gundars Vetra

    ”Toughen up, teachers,” that’s the takeaway message? I mean, I get it — quit your whining, everybody hates at least something in their job, but when comparing teaching to the rest of the working world there should be some consideration given to the different rewards people get from their jobs. Monetary compensation is hardly a motivator for teaching. I would argue satisfaction would surpass it. Class size, curriculum, support from social programs and parents would be normal, everyday concerns during a good year. Add to it legislative nonsense and tenuous tenure status, and your take sounds like old-man populism.

  • Bob Collins

    // and your take sounds like old-man populism.

    But to reach that conclusion, you had to redefine “my take” rather than simply address the literal, which is the “why do you hate America?” response.

    I didn’t open the door to the discussion; the teachers in the story did. So, no, I don’t think people who want to engage them need to apologize for doing so.

    I assume you have a particular interest and knowledge of the chore of teaching, why people do it, why they’re satisfied, why they’re not, and how — precisely — the job satisfaction is higher than the rest of the working world.

    You could have shared that and actually set the table for a productive conversation that eschews the usually hyperbole surrounding the issue.

    You still can.

  • Susan WB

    I think teacher burnout is a more significant issue than burn-out in other jobs because no one wants their kid taught by a burned-out teacher. It would be right up there with burned-out doctor – not the guy you want taking care of you when you’re sick, is it? If my insurance agent is burned out, I’ll get a new one. If my car mechanic is burned out and provides poor service, I’ll go somewhere else. Not so easy to do with my child’s teacher. High morale among teachers equals better classroom experiences for kids (because people who like their jobs engage more fully and are more effective), and therefore, teacher burn-out matters to a whole lot of people.

    I feel sympathy for teachers because they frequently get blamed for things beyond their control. The “failing education system” takes the heat for everything from Internet bullies to youth crime rates. But how much influence over these greater societal issues do individual teachers actually have?

    How many of us work in jobs where politicians get to debate our effectiveness in the hallowed halls of Congress? Yet how many politicians have ever actually taught a class? I don’t think anyone likes having their work performance judged by people who are fundamentally unfamiliar with the challenges of their job. It’s like having a boss who doesn’t really understand what you do. Or in public school teachers’ cases, hundreds of bosses who don’t understand what you do, and yet talk about it on national TV.

  • matt

    I think a component is that technology has made a lot of jobs much easier over the last 100 years. The output for most of us has improved and in many cases allowed to be more specialized or to automate the worst parts of our job. Certainly not the case for teachers – there output is the same now as it was years/decades ago. We all base our happiness on those around us a 30 year teacher married to a police officer has seen a number of his/her problems solved or automated while teaching remains stagnant. That is not to say that education has not benefitted from technology but word processing, electronic forms, etc have saved the policeman from hours of desk time that he/she hated most about their job and the teachers know that. Their issues have not been solved in the same way. (no to mention their lack of productivity gains stick out like a sore thumb and add to the overpaid teachers meme)

    My two cents.

  • Bob Collins

    //No one wants their kid taught by a burned-out teacher.

    Sure, but the survey that is cited shows that most teachers not only AREN’T burned out, that quite the opposite is the case.

    When a headline says — as some did — “teacher morale reaches 20 year low” — that certainly suggests everyone’s burned out, until you look at the survey. It shows that there has been a large drop in morale, but that the profession still has a higher job satisfaction rating than the working world as a whole.

    There are so many stories about how terrible it is to be a teacher, that I would think the number of people who think it’s terrible to be a teacher would be higher than it is.

    That’s not to say that teaching isn’t honorable, that teachers aren’t terrific, that’s a most difficult job, or that they’re not valued. It’s saying that the characterization of how things are as a teacher seem to be based on 30% of the teachers.

    I’m willing to look at data to the contrary, of course.

  • Peter B

    Matt: What technology would you propose to deal with classroom size? I think current technology has increased the productivity of teaching on average as much as most other professions.

    It’s possible the tendency towards teaching to standardized tests and making AYP is taking some of the satisfaction away from the profession. In lieu of a higher salary we expect teachers to take some internal rewards away from the job as well, and the robotic process of simply teaching to the test really degrades that personal satisfaction.

  • Gundars Vetra

    I think you can rule out motives for entering the profession that would explain why their satisfaction would be higher than the general population during a recession. How could salary, social status, and glamorous perks enter the equation of many of the public service employment seekers? We could argue that, but I would wager being appreciated probably ranks a bit higher on a teacher’s job concerns list than in the rest of the working world’s; and if you were to take a dose of feeling persecuted, add a dash of job security jeopardy, throw it all in the political echo chamber — I’m willing to bet putting up with administrative incompetence, absentee parenting, and the ensuing blame game would get a bit older a bit quicker.

    (What I would really like to see on news cut is how Andre Iguodala could be traded for Derrick Williams and a #18 draft pick.)

  • Jim Shapiro

    “Underappreciated” = underpaid.

    For that to change, societal values must change and a merit-based system of compensation must be established. Not merely one that is based on test scores, but one that also reflects the heroic, human value that a good teacher is able to impart.

  • Bob Collins

    // “Underappreciated” = underpaid.

    Not according to the survey. 77% said they’re treated as a professional by the community, but only 35% thought the salary was fair.

    That number went up quite a bit when asking about benefits and retirement — into the 60% range.

    So teachers seem to feel they’re treated professionally, but not paid well on a week to week basis, but benefits and retirement are satisfactory, they say.

    What I’m pointing out here in this area is a significant difference in how teachers are reporting they see themselves and how they are portrayed as seeing themselves.

  • Dan

    I wonder what we mean when we say “teachers.” Do we mean public school teachers? Teachers at private schools? Teachers at charter schools? Teachers in Alabama or Minnesota? Teachers in Alaska or Hawaii? Tenured or non-tenured? I think, NCLB notwithstanding, there’s a lot of variety in what’s expected or scapegoated depending on the state (or the city, for that matter–or the school board). It’s hard for me to put teachers into one category.

    And when teachers consider changing a career, does that mean giving up teaching? Or does it mean moving from a public school to a charter school?

    I wonder to what degree these discrepancies can be chalked up to the fact that “teacher” doesn’t simply mean “public school teacher” anymore….

  • Summers Off

    DJs are on air for 3 hours, should we assume they get 21 off?

  • matt

    @Peter B

    I don’t have a specific proposal and as a school board member I have not seen a lot offered in that area. Yes, testing technology is there and Smart boards, Ipads are great and make teachers much more effective and individuate learning. But in the end a 1925 third grade teacher was putting 25-30 kids through school, just as a 2012 third grade teacher is. A patrol officer spends less time processing a criminal or can hand them off and get back on the street. An accountant can create x more documents per day because of spreadsheets. A doctor can see more patients because x-rays can be read by an offsite radiologist. A reporter can gather facts more quickly and disseminate their product more widely. The teacher is still processing 25-30 kids a year. Different processing to be sure but still the same amount of finished product. And realistically we don’t want to change that. We dont want to reduce the hands on time. But in the end the cop, the bean counter and cub reporter all have seen leaps in their careers that the teaching profession has not. Again measure your career against theirs as far as what has gotten better and I suspect you will be happy to be in your profession and so the inverse could well hold true. Unless of course you are a teacher…

  • Tyler

    I believe this quote is attributed to Drew Carey:

    ““Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.””

  • Snyder

    I would say one way that teachers have it rougher than most other workers or even other public sector workers like me is the degree of scrutiny and second-guessing they face from the public at large.

    The fact that most teachers are still at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs in spite of all that is something that I think they should be commended for. I really doubt I could maintain my morale in the workplace under those conditions. It’s hard enough just facing the constant attacks from jerks in the Legislature who have no respect for public service workers.

  • kennedy

    Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the atmosphere of energy. Students are optimistic, vibrant, ready to question and ready to listen. Seems like a pretty good work environment.

    It is unfortunate that the profession is being kicked around as a political football.

  • Kate R

    “It’s hard for the layperson to understand what EXACTLY makes effective teaching impossible — class size? funding? The majority of teachers in the Met Life survey are positive on both of these things, oddly enough. The majority say parents are supportive and engaged. And yet there’s this perception that teachers are battling impossible odds to educate kids.”

    The thing about being a teacher is that we must be incredibly hopeful, and also practical about what we can accomplish in a day or in a year. Part of being a good teacher is always wanting to improve, to reach one more kid, to teach this or that better. So when we see clearly the task in front of us, it is impossible. But we do the best we can, and take joy from what we are able to accomplish, which is a lot.

    The majority of our teachers are excellent, and the rest are fine or good. Truly, it is hard, and truly, it is rewarding.

    The biggest challenges come when there is a wide range of experiences in the classroom, but also this is when the greatest rewards can be found by a teacher who can see and extract them out.

    We teach for the good of our community…but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be paid well. We have taken lower salaries in the short term for security and the promise of future payment in the form of pensions. Please remember that our investment is in the long term success of our community and our children, not in short term salaries, test scores, or legislative sessions. Life is long, and children are different.

    Thanks for reading…my job over the next 2 months is getting ready for the next group of children, and this reflection is important.

  • Bob Collins

    That was a delight to read.