What is a teacher worth?

June 21, 2009

The first sentence of a recent New York Times story read: “So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?” 

A charter school in New York City will be trying to answer that question, employing teachers at the top of their game, recruited from around the country to converge on one inner-city neighborhood to educate low-income students. 

The idea of any teacher receiving a comparable salary to other specialized professionals brought a smile to my face.  It is just an experiment, and although it is great for those teachers selected, it does not solve the problem of undercompensation for all the other hardworking teachers devoted to guiding our children to success. 

The story made me reflect on some of my own teachers.  I had good ones and bad ones.  I still remember the kindergarten teacher who made me cry because I accidentally cut the two halves of my hand-traced turkey apart. 

She threw my project away and sent me to the red rug instead of letting me start over.  Mine was the only family in the class that year that did not have a construction paper turkey centerpiece on the table at Thanksgiving.  She was a bad teacher.

Fortunately, I had many more good ones than bad ones.  I remember the third grade teacher who let me interrupt class to put on a play I’d written myself, then held me in the hallway as I cried after running from the room with humiliating stage fright, ending the performance before it began.  Thank you, Mrs. Oss.

My fifth grade teacher held a giggling boy by the ankles, dangling him over the garbage can during a demonstration of inverted fractions.  I have not forgotten that lesson, or that funny guy who made a budding writer enjoy math (at least for one school year).  Thank you, Mr. Brayko.

Seeing I was bored, my eighth grade English teacher kept shoving classic books at me, insisting that I read them and write an 800 word report on each. 

How unfair!  Nobody else had to do these extra assignments.  As much as I complained about that guy, I read every one of those books and wrote every one of those essays.  I still have my notebook from that class.  Thank you, Mr. Yoakam.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher asked me to stay after class.  I was sure I was getting a lecture on tardiness, as the class was first period and I was almost always late. 

Instead, he sat me down and told me I had talent, and he wanted to see me published some day.  I’m published, Mr. Wilson.  Thank you for believing in me. 

And I can’t forget my grandmother, who handed me a copy of Gone with the Wind when I was 11, and said, “You’re ready for this.  You’ll like it.”  I haven’t stopped reading it since.  Thanks, Gram.

How much do these teachers deserve to be compensated?  How do you place a value on a life forever changed?  One teacher quoted in the New York Times story, Oscar Quintero, said, “This is the first time in 30 years of teaching that anybody has been really interested in what I do.” 

Mr. Quintero, I bet there is an entire generation of former students who would beg to differ. 

Have a great summer vacation, teachers.  You might not get paid near enough, but believe me, there are lots of us very interested in what you do.

The story by Elissa Gootman, titled “Next Test: Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers,” appeared on the New York Times online edition on June 5, 2009.  It is available here.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on June 21, 2009.