Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers is not a book to read during the school year, teachers. My recommendation? If you must read this book, read it in the middle of the summer, when you are no longer burnt out but have several weeks to recover your optimism before going back to your work.
I will readily admit, I first noticed this book because I had a defensive emotional response to the title. “Teachers have it easy??? I must read this book so I can get angry and sarcastic and refute everything they say!” Then, of course, I read the subtitle, and wondered what the authors had to say about America’s teachers.
Mostly, I cannot recommend this book to my teacher friends. The focus of the book is money, and the big picture of how more money would help teachers and students. True — we all know it’s true — but it’s not something individual teachers can do much about. Ranting and raving about money doesn’t get the job done…and neither does it result in more money. We choose this, and we choose to come back each year. If you want to be a teacher, you can. If you’d rather make a lot of money doing something less satisfying, you can do that instead. Conventional wisdom applies: You can’t have everything. That doesn’t only apply to teachers.
One point that was driven home by this book was how we as teachers feel we are perceived by society as a whole. When a new acquaintance asks what I do for a living, and I say I am a teacher, I react to how I think they think about me. (Crazy sentence…Are you still with me?) Most of the time, I perceive that they think I’m patient, cheery, altruistic, self-sacrificing. When all they know about me is that I’m a teacher.
I wish “I’m a teacher” made people think that I’m smart, ambitious, outgoing, hardworking, and relentless. Because from my perspective of actually being a teacher, those five words are essential to a good teacher. I needed to possess those characteristics before I could be a good teacher. Being patient, cheery, altruistic, or self-sacrificing are lovely, but certainly not true of all teachers, and certainly not always true of me!
Despite its negative focus, I would recommend this book to non-teachers who truly want to understand the perspective of teachers. I would also then recommend that they find a way to understand why smart and ambitious people love this work, why we choose to stay, despite the challenges…perhaps because of the challenges.
My favorite quote from the book, from Dan Lortie, a sociologist who focuses on education:
The basic condition that makes the job of teachers difficult is that teachers — as persons, as individual, and particularly in the lower grades — are trained to think that they’re dealing with individual kids. But in fact they’re dealing with twenty-five individual kids in each class. Somewhere in there, it is so emotionally trying that it’s very hard for teachers to feel successful. There’s always a sense that somehow or other, they could have done a better job. The irony in this is that the smarter and more sensitive the teacher is, the more likely they are to feel that way.
So to my teacher friends, if Mr. Lortie is correct, that feeling that you should have done more or better is a signal that you are good at this!