The Insanity that is Teaching Today

topWhen Occupy Math finished his undergraduate education in 1979 he looked into becoming a math teacher. At the time the hours were long (except during summer unemployment), and the yearly starting pay was about 20% more than what Occupy Math made as a part-time calculus tutor at the University of Kansas. Occupy Math took a pass. The situation has gotten much worse since then. The low pay has persisted, the number of classes you have to teach has gone up, and the working conditions have gotten much worse. This week’s post was triggered by an article that teachers are extraordinarily likely to rent their own house out as an Air B&B. One in ten Air B&B hosts is a teacher. In other words, there are teachers renting out their houses to be able to afford being teachers. That is the tip of the iceberg: read on.

The sharing economy embodies a clever idea that can go well or poorly. If you have something cool that you are not using right now, offer it for rent or hire. You can rent houses, boats, and motorcycles. You can also hire things like cars from Uber or Lyft. This all works because the internet can act as a broker though everyone’s phone or computer. The upside is that things get used more and prices go down.

The bad part is that Air B&B is putting hotels out of business and making rental properties scarce in some places, Taxis are becoming an endangered species in many cities and the brokers that arrange things are keeping a whole lot of the money. Uber, for example, is planning to keep all the money by developing self-driving cars. Their contractors are, in their view, disposable start-up commodities. Mostly the sharing economy is creating a transition to a new phase of the overall economy and we have to figure out better regulations.


What about the teachers?

Teachers are about 2% of the employed adults in the United States and they are 10% of the Air B&B hosts. In Wisconsin and Utah, this percentage is higher: 25%. Being an Air B&B host can net a teacher about a 10% income increase. This is really noticeable, especially as K-12 teachers often have to pay for their classroom supplies out of their own pocket. According to the linked article the average expenditure on supplies by a teacher is $479. The federal government allows a maximum tax deduction of $250 for this sort of spending.

Back when Occupy Math looked into being a teacher, a teacher in his area taught four classes, had two planning periods per day, and an hour lunch break. During the planning periods some planning occurred, but you also got a start on your grading. Teachers were also expected to do some after-hours work, like running school events and finishing their grading. Occupy Math has been both a parent volunteer and an organizer for these events and has first-hand experience of what the teachers do. A teacher not only gets pay well below what other people with their education level get, they are considered “professionals” which means the pay does not go up with the extra hours — which keep getting longer as education funding is cut.

This leads to another problem area: “accountability”. School districts that will not even give a teacher a supply budget, modern textbooks, or proper computer resources are also blaming teachers for bad outcomes. School boards and governments are trying to replace adequate pay and resources with piles of rules to force teachers to do a good job. In Occupy Math’s home province of Ontario, teachers are given prescriptive and awful curricula that they must teach. The people that develop these curricula seldom have recent classroom experience and are seldom domain experts in the topics they are developing lessons for. A majority of the people developing the curriculum are retired administrators with degrees in educational theory and decades have passed since their last classroom experience.

More evidence: the teacher shortage

What do you think happens when a profession is underfunded and subject to abusive regulation? People stop going into that profession. The United States has a teacher shortage. The teacher shortage is not only a problem with hiring, it is a problem with retention. New teachers rarely last more than three years. On top of all the other problems, teaching is an isolated profession the way we do it now. Forcing teachers to spend all of their time at work in the classroom means they get very little time with colleagues or other adults. This is an added mental burden.


Governmental Abuse

Because public education is critical to the societal and economic health of a state, it is often a huge part of the state budget. Many states now have conservative governments that view their mission as cutting taxes and pretty much nothing else. This means they have to trim expenses and so they trim the big expense: education. There is also a problem with even the value of education becoming a political football. Higher education has been attacked as being intrinsically against one of the major political parties in the US. Let’s look as some examples.

The State of Kansas has a constitutional provision that requires adequate funding of education. The state government has done such a bad job of obeying this provision of the state constitution that the Kansas Supreme Court has intervened to force them to fund schools. Kansas has been a leader in cutting taxes at all costs, and their frontal assault on education funding is one of the results.

Before she became the worst Secretary of Education in history, Betsy DeVos was active in educational policy in her home state of Michigan. She lobbied (she is a billionaire) to divert public school funds to private schools, many of which she owned. She said this would encourage the public schools to do a better job. Michigan’s ranking in national math and reading tests dropped from near the middle of national rankings to near the bottom.

Another state with a billionaire governor is Wisconsin. Wisconsin leads the nation in cutting school funding. Remember: Wisconsin was one of the two states where 25% of Air B&B hosts were teachers? Unlike Michigan, Wisconsin is still getting pretty good educational outcomes, but this is the result of a legacy of educational excellence that is under government assault.

What use is education?

Education pays back in the long term in a huge way. This means it deserves solid funding. Cutting education funding to save money only saves money in the short term. In the long term you get higher unemployment, more crime, a less efficient economy, and a less pleasant society. Education is literally the silver bullet to fight poverty and inequality.

Schools and education help the whole community and all of society. The argument, too often voiced, that a person without children should not have to help fund education is pure nonsense. Other people’s kids are going to be your doctor and dentist, your investment counsellor or banker, your lawyer and your judge, and they will run your government.

What can you do?

The current situation is driven by insane government policy that does not even look at what they are asking their teachers to do. There is a lot that can be done.

  • Place reasonable expectations on teachers in your community. Go to school board meetings and local government events. Support expanding resources for teachers and schools.
  • Have a fundraiser for school supplies in your district. Teachers having to cough up their own money to purchase school supplies rubs Occupy Math absolutely the wrong way. Remember, you can have a bake sale, donate money, or even donate supplies. There is also an organized crowd funding site for teachers supplies: Donors Choose.
  • If a politician is saying that working in education is a gravy train or that teachers have it easy with high pay and summers off, he is probably lying. Check his statements. Occupy Math’s teachers often worked summers at a better paying job so that they could afford to continue their teaching job. My music teacher in high school drove semi-trailers over the summer.
  • Occupy Math loves to teach. Teaching can be a personally rewarding profession. That fact is not a form of compensation — smack down any politician or administrator who tries to use it as one.
  • Yes, there is waste, and there are bad educational initiatives. This is not a reason to de-fund education. This is a reason to volunteer in the schools, go to school board meetings, act as a teacher’s aide if you have the time, and to become an advocate for better education in your community.

Occupy Math has to deal with high school graduates with crippled math skills way too often. The failure to support education is most of the reason that so many students are making it to university unprepared. Please jump in to improve education in your community. If you have ideas for helping this situation, or other things that Occupy Math could blog about, please suggest it in the comments!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


2 thoughts on “The Insanity that is Teaching Today

  1. As a second-career mathematics teacher setting out on a recent, unpaid, and extended sabbatical with no end date, I could not agree more. Quite a shame for this country, I must add. Our obsession with “the invisible hand” of unbridled, free market capitalism coupled with the ongoing denigration of teachers leads us to an end state where there is no state.


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