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Monday, November 7, 2011

Alex P. Keaton and the death of my teaching career

Until I was 12 years old, my number one career goal was to become a teacher. This was hardly surprising. My primary school teachers were legendary, and I still hold them in the highest esteem (Miss Nuttall, Mrs Catchpole, Mr Holmes, Mrs Kenny—I’m thinking of you).

Teaching is also ingrained in my gene pool—my mother and two of my grandparents were teachers, and my brother and sister carried on the tradition.

I am the odd one out; the one who became a lawyer instead.

I can remember the exact moment that I started questioning my long-held teaching ambitions. I was 12, and our Year 7 class was having one of those “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up” discussions. I announced proudly that I was going to be a teacher.

Later, I was waylaid by the class upstart. For the purposes of this story, I will call him Alex, because at the time he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Alex P. Keaton character from Family Ties (the one played by a young Michael J. Fox) – sleek hairdo, smart talker, entrepreneurial tendencies already clearly in evidence. Alex demanded, quite seriously, “You are the smartest kid in this class. Why do you want to be a teacher? You can do better than that.”

It was the first time I’d heard anyone suggest that teaching was not the highest calling; the be-all-and-end-all of brilliant jobs. Alex explained to me that other professions could earn me more money, and that the smartest people never became teachers because there were much better jobs out there.*

I know now that Alex was talking out of his arse, or at the very least was just repeating something he’d heard from some misguided, money-grubbing adult. Shame on me for listening to him.

Although I abandoned my own teaching career before it even began, I have never stopped being a fan of great teachers. As a parent, I have started to grasp the enormity of how hard it is to be an educator. Explaining something in clear and simple terms is a skill that is grossly underrated. Being consistently patient, kind but fair, level-headed, intelligent, calm and reasonable, is even more difficult, in my opinion—and most days I am only dealing with two children at a time. Imagine the challenge of being a primary school teacher—exercising all the skills I listed above, but in addition having to adjust your approach at will to suit the vast range of ability levels, moods, temperaments and tiredness levels that you might encounter at any time in a group of twenty 6-year-olds. Someone who can pull that off is nothing short of a genius.

Why is it, then, that teachers are so grossly under-appreciated in so many countries? I don’t doubt that many people look back and remember, with fondness and appreciation, their favourite/best teachers. Teachers’ paychecks, however, do not reflect this at all (on this one point, Alex was right on the money). As a first-year lawyer, with the ink still drying on my law school diploma, I got a job at a U.S. law firm in Tokyo. My annual compensation was literally three times that of my highly-experienced-Australian-high-school-teacher mother’s (and let me point out that my mother worked in the private system, so her salary was probably higher than that of the average Australian teacher of her age and experience). It was embarrassing. It was wrong. It surprised no one.

My 6-year-old started preschool this year—the first level of compulsory education in Finland. I love her teachers. They are highly experienced. They have Masters’ degrees in education. They speak fluent English. They are lovely, kind-but-will-take-bullshit-from-no-one people. When my daughter first started preschool, I went around telling anyone who would listen how lucky we were to have found such a great school.

It wasn’t long before Finns started informing me, gently but firmly, that probably our school and its teachers are not the lucky find I thought they were--not because they aren't fantastic, but because the teaching profession in Finland is full of similarly fantastic people. Finland boasts high standards for the admission of graduates to the teaching profession (including a Masters'-level university degree). Teachers are highly educated and highly respected. No one here would dare say that teaching is the kind of profession you choose because you are incapable of doing anything else.

In my early 20s, when I lived in Japan (before I went back and finished my initially-abandoned law degree and got a “better job”) I walked into a part-time teaching job armed with my Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and a diploma in Speech and Drama. Had I studied theory of education? Did I have extensive practical teaching skills? Did I have specialist pedagogical knowledge? Um, nope, none of the above! No one cared. No one even asked. Here in Finland, none of the fancy letters after my name would get me anywhere near a teaching job. By law, I would be required to undertake further study and get practical experience before being allowed to get a paid teaching position. In my opinion, this is exactly as it should be, and this is the perhaps the biggest reason that Finland scores consistently stellar results in the OECD’s PISA testing of 15 year olds’ ability in reading, science and mathematics. In 2009, Finnish students’ scores were 3rd, 2nd and 6th in the world in those respective areas. Australian students’ scores were 9th, 10th and 15th in the world. American students’ were 16th, 22nd and 35th.

(if you’re interested, see http://stats.oecd.org/PISA2009Profiles/# for complete results).

Cheered at this rosy picture of wonderful Finnish educators and the strong results being achieved by their students, I went looking for data about Finnish teacher’s salaries, fairly sure the higher status of and greater respect for teachers here was reflected in much better salaries than in other countries. I was absolutely shocked to find out that (according to 2005 figures I found here) Finnish teachers are in fact paid less—significantly less—than their counterparts in America, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom. They do earn more than teachers in Italy, Eastern Europe, Thailand and South America. Oh, what a relief [cough].

How is it that, while we want our children to have a high-quality, unparalleled education, we as a society aren’t prepared to pay more than bargain basement prices for that privilege? Maybe we are, in idealistic theory, but when push comes to shove, no one wants to put their hard-earned money into an investment whose returns, though vitally important to society in the long run, are unlikely to come back to the original investor in monetary form.

Lawyers and money-market dealers earn big money because that’s what the market is willing to pay for their services; a market with deep pockets that are kept full thanks to the work of said lawyers and money-market dealers.  Teachers, on the other hand, do nothing but take on and fulfill the responsibility of educating our children in every aspect of the school curriculum and in countless other aspects of life—ethics, social skills, physical fitness, psychology, you name it.

I mean, really. Why would we waste our money on something like that?

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* Irrelevant but interesting: Alex went on to an expensive private secondary school, got a high enough score to get into law school, and abandoned the profession after a very short time. Now, in his mid-30s, he is a long-haired, would-be rock star who hasn’t quite made it. True story.

Even more interestingly, another boy in our class, with whom I shared the honour of being dux of our primary school, is now a university lecturer—a teacher.

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