Quora Question: How Do We Undervalue Teachers and Education?

A 16-year-old student was arrested following an attack on a teacher in Milwaukee. REUTERS/Stefanie Loos

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Answer from Vielka Hoy, founder and director at Vielka Hoy Consulting:

How do we undervalue education? I would really like to address the "we" in the question.

Most every person is aware that teachers are underpaid. When I did my student teaching in New York City, many of the newer teachers talked about living on their friends' kitchen floors, waiting for a pay jump when they received their clear credential, at least enough to move to the living room couch.

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This didn't change when I moved back to the Bay Area where we have special public housing for teachers and pay hikes in one district (San Mateo), which virtually depletes the qualified teacher pool a few districts over (Oakland). I also thought about every unmarried teacher I know; they are all moonlighting (including myself). These teachers cater evening events, work at Starbucks and Barnes and Noble on the weekends, or have a real estate license. My high school Spanish teacher always talked about how he just had to sell three houses in a year to make a living wage in the summer. Wow, that's embarrassing. Not for him, but for us, as a society, that allows that.

So I thought more about the we/us in the question.

As most students return to school, I've seen many articles about the dreaded supply list. Most are encouraging, such as this one, reminding families that teachers are underpaid and shouldn't spend that little money on school supplies also. I teach in a high school; without sending a supply list home, I still receive boxes of tissues and a sympathetic note from parents.

But I still felt uneasy. If families are trying to address the issue about being underpaid, then why not pass a bond in the city to raise our salaries? What did they think that box of tissue was actually going to do?

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Don't get me wrong. I am not an ungrateful teacher. I truly enjoy whatever means families choose to show their appreciation. I just wonder how it is that we have arrived at this place, where we ask families to subsidize an education, something that truly should not have a value.

Going a step further, I thought about all the ways we, as teachers, encounter sort of micro-aggressions around the value of teaching. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can get all of my students to truly understand a concept. Should I use a song? What words should I emphasize in my lecture? What happens during this part when it's a little boring? What outside text supports this argument? So you can see that when I encountered Khan Academy's slogan, my feelings were hurt: "Free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." Isn't that already what public school teachers are doing? And as far as I'm aware, no credentialed teachers even work for Khan Academy. How are they evaluating that "world-class" part?

This is where I made the connection, and it has a lot to do with business practices in setting prices. We value things based on how much they cost. If Jordans were priced closer to the cost it takes to make them, they wouldn't be so sought after. People would think they are cheap, badly-produced and be embarrassed to wear them. It's the same for teachers and public education: the price has been set so low, we all have come to undervalue it.

I was talking to a parent the other day. She said that her son never received a good education because the school district couldn't attract good teachers with the low salary.

"In California, a clear credential requires an additional year of school beyond a Bachelor's, in some cases a master's degree, numerous exams and many certifications to work with English learners, special education students, and sometimes technology," I explained. "That 'bad' teacher has hundreds of hours of additional training before stepping into a classroom, regardless of the pay."

She shrugged, "Public school teachers are just bad."

And there is tutoring.

"I did well in chemistry in high school," a young person said in an effort to gain employment as a tutor.

"But can you teach chemistry?"

"How hard can it be? My teacher wasn't all that great. I'm sure I can figure it out."

Just to be clear, I also don't think the solution is in just paying teachers more. Charter schools have proven that. In that case, we pay teachers more for the time commitment, but not for the teaching; otherwise charter schools would actually hire teachers with the experience necessary to work with high-need populations.

If we all truly valued education, a lot of things would look different. And we might see a very different result with our children.

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