Wednesday, January 5, 2011

This weeks' alarm in the middle of the night

So, at lunch Tuesday a conversation emerged about pensions and retirement. Many in my department are concerned about the prospects of our pension disappearing with the election of a fairly conservative Tom Corbett. Despite his bombast, I'm not that worried to greatly. I don't see any political force powerful enough to rob employees of what has already been put in. As for a gradual phase out of our future pension, well, I saw the writing on the wall for that half a decade ago.

Oh, back to my story. One of my colleagues, after lunch broke, simply asked me "What's the motivation to teach?"

She was posing it more as a philosophical point, echoing a question one of her graduate school professors had posed. She clarified to me that she wasn't necessarily saying it for herself, but that it's something one had to ponder if teaching in a less fortunate environment than ours.

The woman who brought this up is one of the most capable and talented teachers I've known. She has the intelligence, charisma, and set of skills to reach any group of kids: she's that good. In fact, she would thrive in any career she chose.

Thankfully she chose teaching.

Okay, here's the point. American society is right now in a grueling conversation about costs of public services and government, and for good reason. Teachers, along with many other public employees, are the focus of many individuals' ideas of where to cut. Again, there's some good reason for this. The words of a public educators' advocate from last spring echo in my head: "Realize that for many a 10% cut in teachers' pay is a good place to start."

If a young, intelligent, talented colleague like mine would question the incentive to teach, I have cause for alarm. Are teachers to be humble public servants or highly compensated professional? The answer is somewhere in between. But I do worry about the long-term impact of driving the best and the brightest in our profession from the classroom, which we might end up doing in the long run. Pensions and benefits are costly perks that level out the somewhat diminished pay of public education. Now that might be an arrogant thing to assert in an economy as dull as ours right now: but stack the pay of educators against private-sector professionals with commensurate education and the teachers' pay will likely be less.

Yet, perhaps here in 2011 we are finally as a society sizing up benefits like health coverage and pensions for what they are: hidden costs that for decades were obscured. Health coverage became a private-sector employee responsibility in the 1950s as a way for businesses to avoid wage-price spiral-inducing inflation (or so President Eisenhower thought). Pensions were a way to assure employees of stability after their working years were done, and to lure retirees from the workforce a bit earlier than they otherwise would for younger workers to start their earning years. Logical solutions to tough potential problems. But costly. And as the true cost of everything (from dealer invoices on cars to plane tickets) becomes more transparent, we finally are confronted with the costs that were always there.

It would be wonderful if we lived in a truly altruistic world where matters of pay and working conditions were trumped by the intrinsic joys of teaching. But we don't. And we won't. And I hope my profession is as appealing to my children's generation as it was to mine.

No comments: