Perpetual Volunteers: Teachers Should Not Be Expected To Work For Free
I saw a “job announcement” last week for someone to teach after-school classes. It touted the “opportunity” to plan lessons and run classes (and of course it would also include classroom management, material preparations, and parent relations). In all ways, it appeared to be a posting for a part-time teaching job. The kicker? The job was completely volunteer!
I’m all for volunteerism, but when the volunteer “opportunity” looks EXACTLY like a highly-skilled day job, it starts to cross into insulting territory. For what other profession is this acceptable? “Looking to give a surgeon the opportunity to perform brain surgery several hours per week on a volunteer basis.” “Looking to give a carpenter the opportunity to remodel kitchens several hours per week on a volunteer basis.” Watch other skilled workers line up to grovel for these “opportunities.” Many professionals and small businesses will do pro bono or discounted work, but it’s usually in line with their normal work schedule and not taken on as an entirely separate job.
A teacher’s skills are undervalued before they even begin their careers. There is a terrible institution called “student teaching.” It provides necessary on-the-job training, and is one of the painful rites of passage that unites teachers as a community, not unlike boot camp. Depending on the state, district, and university, student teaching can last one semester or a whole year, and the new teacher is responsible for all usual teacher duties while being supervised and critiqued for the duration. Not only is this labor unpaid, but student teachers are actually paying tuition for the privilege.
In most states, it is now the expectation that teachers hold a Master’s degree prior to being hired for an entry-level position, so many student teachers are paying graduate tuition in addition to providing skilled labor. It is near impossible to hold other jobs during student teaching, so most student teachers have to take out additional student loans to cover living expenses.
This sets the stage for people to view any work that teachers aren’t literally paying to do as an improvement. There are other professions whose required internships are paid, but they tend to lead to careers that pay better than teaching anyway. There is a huge disconnect between the assumption that teachers are no more than part-time babysitters and the reality that young, entry-level teachers begin their careers at poverty-level wages and with a Master’s degree worth of student loan debt.
Teachers and the people who love them talk a LOT about how underpaid they are, but also how their compensation is immaterial because the profession is supposed to be so darn rewarding. While this is a lovely way to build solidarity with your colleagues and comfort yourself as you apply for reduced-price school lunches for your children, it in a way excuses the undervaluing of the profession. Teachers are expected to be saints, above the petty human desires for a living wage and health insurance, and it’s like tearing up your Good Teacher Card if you complain about it.
We’ve all seen things like “What Teachers Make,” emphasizing the non-monetary benefits of being a teacher – which I refer to as the “Warm Fuzzies” – that sets up both teachers and their adversaries to count this as a form of compensation. The ugly truth: absolutely every job has some kind of non-monetary benefit, or else people wouldn’t do them. A pediatrician might enjoy working with kids and making them feel better. A graphic designer might enjoy the creativity and problem solving of producing quality work. A retail clerk might enjoy the personal connection with coworkers. But these benefits are never discussed as though they were a consolation prize or an excuse for being paid poverty wages, or being unpaid at all.
We need to stop expecting teachers to work for free. It drives down the perceived value of their highly skilled, expensively-acquired, trained labor to ZERO.