Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Education doesn't pay

Sorry for the posting delay. I have some good articles in the works but my life is flying too fast by me currently, some days I wish I had more time just to pause, decompress, and understand it all.

Today I want to draw your attention to the story of Nichole Byrne Lau, who was most recently a teacher at a New York City charter school where she "received an evaluation saying that her students at the Williamsburg Charter High School were 'lucky to have you as their teacher.'" and was also mentioned on the front page of the New York City School's website. (Hat tip to Steve Gilliard where I first saw the article.)

She was fired for showing other teachers at Williamsburg Charter School a copy of the pay school for teachers in NYC public schools, and organizing her colleagues to ask for better salaries and benefits.

Why do I bring this up? Well, her last name is Lau, but it doesn't really matter whether or not she is Asian American or hapa. What is at the heart of the matter here is the way that American society is willing to devalue their teachers. This is one of the central tenets of Asian education that I *do* respect -- not the blind faith and unwillingness to speak out or question authority -- but the status that teachers and professors are accorded in Asian society. This disrespect extends from the children to the parents on up to school admininistrators.

Ask my friends who are teachers what it was like in their first few years, how hard they struggled to control their classrooms, and how much they consistently had to lobby for resources from the schools so that they could DO their jobs of teaching kids. Ask them how they felt when, freshly minted Ivy League degree in hand, people asked them, "But you went to Harvard/Stanford/Columbia - why would you want to teach?!?" with just enough scorn and derision in their voices to make the low salaries and long hours sting that much more.

Ask them about being spat on by kids, about being hit, about unresponsive and ungrateful parents (and administrators). Ask them how fast the idealism drained out of them, like a newborn with a head wound. Small wonder, then, that teacher retention is so low, and demand so high. What makes it worthwhile then? The small victories of seeing a child understand how to solve a math problem are outweighed by unruly classes and seeing much of your salary go toward school supplies for kids -- books, crayons, construction paper, even toilet paper at really broke schools.

Let's look at another field where the employees are similarly in demand, like nursing. Nurses in many parts of the country are represented by unions, and in places with particularly desperate need, they can get signing bonuses of $5,000-20,000. There are no incentives like that for teachers, and one of the few distinctions is that without nurses, people would die due to substandard levels of care.

I would argue that without retaining teachers who are qualified (and Byrne Lau definitely sounds like she fits the bill with a degree from Columbia Teachers University) and paying more to make it a more attractive job, the American future dies as well. Never forget that all of our future employees/leaders/CEOs/presidents come out of the schools, pubilc, private, charter or parochial. Investing in good teachers makes logical sense because it's an investment into our future.

I'd also like to debunk an old canard that "those who can't do, teach." It's that many can't be bothered to teach because there is little to no reward in it. Education can and should pay.

Fight on Nichole Byrne Lau!

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