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Voices: I don't produce widgets, I teach children

Dougco high school teacher Traci Mumm says those who would infuse education with competition and market-based solutions have a fundamental misunderstanding of how teaching works.

The world of education is swirling with talk of reform, and it’s coming from both sides of the political aisle.

At the core of these discussions is an insistence that teacher compensation move away from the age-old salary matrix and towards a market-based pay system that measures, rewards and attracts good teaching. The general feeling is that other occupations survive and thrive in this competitive environment, so education will too.

Those who insist that education would improve with an infusion of competition and market-based solutions have a fundamental misunderstanding of how teaching works.

I don’t produce “widgets,” I teach children.

I have no control over the minds and actions of my students; they sit in my classroom for a variety of reasons. I cannot fire them. I cannot whip them. I can simply attempt to keep their attention long enough to teach them something, anything.

They may not have eaten breakfast, gotten sleep, done their homework, read the assigned pages, taken their medication, gone to the bathroom or made up with their boyfriends when they walk through my door. They arrive squirmy, hungry, sleepy, angry and, sometimes, ready to learn.

How in the world, then, can you measure what they will or will not learn from me?

Who judges how well I do my job?

Then there remains the problem of who gets to judge how well I do my job.

My principals are overwhelmed with the business of running the school. My students can tell you how “cool” I am, how much they like or dislike me, how difficult they believe my class to be, but they are not equipped to judge the quality of my teaching.

Parents also can tell you many things about what happens in my classroom, but they also don’t know enough to make a qualified judgment about what I do. You can observe my students’ TCAP/CSAP scores, as long as I teach English, math or science, and factor into your calculations that students do not take this test seriously.

Also, how does anyone judge the actual purpose of teaching, which is socializing and educating kids. Can I get a bonus for enticing the first-time smile from the shy kid who sneaks in and sits in the back? How about the kid who just finished a novel and can’t wait to talk about it?

How do you measure the success of talking with a student who trusts me enough to tell me that her parents fight too much, or that she’s with a boy who hurts her? I teach kids and use English and literature as my vocabulary. It’s great when they leave my class knowing the difference between “who” and “whom.”

It’s even better when they leave my class knowing that they can trust me enough to learn and love what I’m teaching.

Finally, there is the problem of teachers’ personalities. If we were competitive, we would not be teachers. We knew the pay structure coming in, and we took the jobs anyway. It would be devastating to education if we pitted teachers against each other.

To force me to compete with the teachers in my office would strangle my ability and desire to collaborate. If I need to teach better that my colleagues, I will certainly not open my drawers to offer tests or share planning periods designing lessens. It is in our nature and our students’ best interests to collaborate and share.

There are so many ways that teaching is unlike any other occupation, so it seems ridiculous to force a pay system designed for competitors onto educators.

Let teachers do what they do best: teach.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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