Teachers Are Not Liabilities

December 3, 2013


This is an excerpt from I Am Not A Liability


It has been a couple of years since I’ve been in front of a classroom, and that disappoints me. The fact is there are few full-time teaching jobs in my field anymore. I’m a philosopher by trade – I know I know. What did I expect, right? Well, I specialized in Critical Thinking and writing, and I expected that those would be valued in the academy for all time. I misjudged. More and more these days, humanities are treated as liabilities.

These days it is more profitable to hire adjunct faculty to teach one-off classes. You don’t have to provide them full-time benefits. The base pay is low. And you can hire and fire them at will, or when their classes fail to show growth potential and profit within the metrics of the academy’s business model.

Simply: full-time teachers are liabilities; they cost money. Students are assets; they bring in money. On the balance sheet, fewer teachers who are paid less and more students who pay higher rates equals bigger black numbers. In an MBA-driven administration, that’s success.

On an annual timeline, it is difficult – nigh impossible – to measure the social value that educational institutions contribute. Long-term benefit is intangible, unquantifiable in number, and must be projected in narrative terms of social and cultural payoff. But investors and tax-payers are interested in bottom lines, not shadows.

One can imagine working – teaching – while haunted by the ghosts of investors past. Hyper-focus on cost blurs a longer view that teaching, much like farming as I think of it, pays out well after the hard work is done. But we keep farming because we’ll need another crop one year on. The analogy breaks down fast though: we harvest what teachers sow much later than we harvest peas and corn – so long that most tend to forget the effort that seeded what we reap a decade later. Certainly a speculator’s attention wanes within a fiscal year, well before a teacher’s labor blossoms and fruits.

These days, we try to measure what we perceive as immediate effects of teaching. By year’s end, a student should have progressed in skills X, Y, and Z, and we measure this by administering standardized tests – or we should say homogenized tests. We add up totals and review the annual bottom line and determine which teachers and techniques have grown our assets, dispensing with those that have not met pre-determined success metrics.

What a shame if we took the same approach to whiskey. The payoff of careful distillation and casking takes a decade or more to realize. Imagine we tasted the results at each year-end and dispensed with any product and process that hadn’t produced results to match our pre-determined expectations. Jim Beam would rule the world while Macallan suffered extinction. Spirits simply need time to develop character, but character has to matter in the market before metrics catch up with evaluative vocabularies. I fear that character does not color academic administrators’ views of success. It’s tough to put a number to it and numbers have superseded narrative when it comes to success stories. So much the worse for moral measures.

The evisceration of education continues unabated with teachers sacrificed on altars of paper and copper and nickel and dimes. To personalize this case: I want to teach but I can’t do so for sub-minimum wages. College lecturers are paid by the hour in the classroom, and in California, for me, that was between $40 – $60. But each hour in class expands to four or six (or more) outside of class because quality matters to me — I want to deliver engaging lectures, foster high-level discussions, and give reasonable and meaningful feedback on students’ writing. There simply isn’t time, given that class enrollment is set to the contractual maximum (49 students) and I would need to teach 5 classes to earn just below median income. The recommendation: multiple choice tests and preset curriculum. Protect yourself. Don’t bother with more. Besides, kids these days don’t even care.

And that right there is a justification that keeps too many revolutionaries settled — though it fires up the likes of me. The “kids these days” stories we tell in the popular media and at home around the dinner table justify a money-driven status quo bereft of creativity, slave to dollar signs. I sometimes wonder why there are so many anti-Millennial invectives these days. Makes us non-Millennials feel better I reckon. Shifts the burden from our conscience to Millennial class consciousness. Makes the other the problem. Education fails because kids these days fail, right?

Wrong. Institutions and administrators fail, as well as all those complicit in the operation of profit-driven educational machines. The system, as they say, is broken. Standardized measuring tools we use are as suited to education as a hammer is suited to baking a birthday cake. Worse: schools continue to take on business models of for-profit corporations, introducing tier after tier of middle management who speciously reason their roles into the black at teachers’ expense. Teachers take money from the till, therefore they are liabilities. Students put money into the till, therefore they are assets. This is bullshit, and because of it, a huge reservoir of non-financial capital — of creative and artistic pursuits whose payoff doesn’t fit in a piggy bank — filled through generations of hard work and good will — that’s all quickly drying up. We need to alter our attitude toward educators and revert to a sense of reverence at those who choose to serve the public through teaching. And reward them as the assets they are.

We cannot continue hiring journeying adjuncts to teach, at some institutions, three out of four university courses, dividing their classroom-hourly rate by four or six (to get a more accurate measure of per-hour salary,) then subtracting a chunk to pay their own health care, then subtracting for expenses to travel from campus to campus because typically they’ll be teaching a couple of classes in a couple of locations. All of a sudden, a decade of higher education and apprenticeship to rise to the top of your field not only doesn’t pay off, but it’s killing you slowly, grinding you to dust because in the eyes of fiscal-year-focused administrators, teachers are liabilities. This must end.

This probably comes off as sour and as angry, and it’s precisely that. I won’t apologize. There’s a mixture of grief stirred in as well, and I figure I’m simply at that stage because the death of my dream is fresh. It’s over. It’s not coming back. And that’s a disappointment. But I’ve been cultivating bigger ideas now to reach a broader audience and I have a clearer, revolutionary purpose. I’m breaking cycles as best I can and telling my son stories of salvation. I am a still a teacher it turns out, and a pure asset to my class-of-one.


This is an excerpt from I Am Not A Liability


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1 Comment
Larry Bernstein
December 5, 2013 @ 5:49 PM

I am a high school English teacher at an inner city school and this post depressed me. I agree and can relate to much of what you say. Excessive testing is not the way to go. There are so many flaws in the system. It is easy to get caught up in them and forget the children that we are there tor work with.


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