Teaching for what it’s worth

Posted 10/4/12

Have you ever taken one of those personality profiles that have become so in vogue for job searches and placement services these days? I have. One of …

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Teaching for what it’s worth


Have you ever taken one of those personality profiles that have become so in vogue for job searches and placement services these days? I have.

One of the profiles I remember was the Myers-Briggs. I don’t, honestly, remember too much about my profile (I do remember that my type is rare — something about sociopathic ...). But one line in my profile sticks with me: “Will apply with an almost ruthless efficiency the question ‘Does it work?’”

Me, “ruthless.” Most of you have absolutely no idea how funny that is.

Of course, it is also true that I ask that question of just about every big idea, every next greatest thing. I suppose that’s part of the reason I tend to search for models of things that work, that are worth imitating, rather than constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.

Like the Finnish education system, to which I alluded a few months back. One of the driving features of the Finnish model is the insistence on having only the best and brightest in front of the classroom. They make it hard to become a teacher, they pay teachers well, and it works.

I only bring that up because I love the idea of placing a premium on getting brilliant and talented people to work with our children. Unfortunately, this is too rare an occurrence in America. According to Fareed Zacaria, half of America’s teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college classes. And if you look at the salary schedule of a few school districts, you’ll see why.

And, NO, I’m not complaining about my pay (that’s my wife’s job), though I certainly would be bristling if the union that negotiates for my salary had turned down a 16 percent pay raise. I got into teaching because I believe the opportunity to work with children is a privilege and an honor, and that the chance to get them excited about music may be my best hope for saving the world.

But 22 years ago, when I got my college degree, it didn’t come with $30,000 of debt, as the average four-year degree does today. Still, there are nice benefits, though had somebody said, “At some point, you’re going to have to give up a big chunk of your salary for those benefits,” I would have to look twice.

I’m not stupid; I know most people pay for their benefits, and do so without the vacation time.

But I also know that if you want to attract the best people to come into this profession, you have to make it reasonably attractive. No teacher is ever going to get a six-figure signing bonus, or hold out of training camp for a better free-agency offer; but your best and brightest college grads need a good reason to look at teaching, and right now, they’re not, as highlighted by a recent report out of California.

Why do I bring all this up? Because the opponents of Jeffco Public Schools’ mill and bond election (ballot issues 3A and 3B) have chosen to focus on increasing district costs for PERA — the state’s retirement-benefit package — as a reason to reject 3A. And, yes, PERA costs more, but that’s a decision made by the state Legislature, not in the school board room. Opponents of 3A seem to think that rejecting more funding for the schools will mean less money going to PERA, but, of course, that can’t be, because the district must comply with the Legislature.

Which leaves two options: that money is going to come out of operating expenses, or the money is going to come out of teachers’ pockets. And given that the district has cut its budget by about 10 percent in the last three years, and will cut another 80 percent if 3A fails, I think we all know which direction this is going to go.

And if that’s the solution the public sees as most viable, then so be it. But, I just have to ask — in as nonruthless a way as I can — does that work? Does this sound like a way to increase our competitiveness with the Finns? Is making this profession less attractive a way to improve our children’s education?

Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.


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