The grand sacrifice of teaching

Is teaching supposed to be a great virtuous sacrifice for the sake of the poor? One might think so from reading Fernanda Santos’s article in today’s New York Times.

Samantha Sherwood had lofty aspirations when she settled on a family-studies major at the University of Connecticut, like redrawing welfare rules or weaving together a sturdier safety net for people in need. She figured that she could change the world in big, broad strokes, and that she might pick up a fancy title and ample salary along the way.

Instead, Ms. Sherwood, 25, joined up with Teach for America, the program that puts top college graduates into the nation’s most poverty-stricken schools, deciding that the best way to make a difference would be, as she put it on Monday, “to be there, where the rubber meets the road.”

I am not passing judgment on Ms. Sherwood; I don’t know her or her teaching. She sounds very dedicated. It’s the article that seems a bit strange. Santos mentions that Sherwood earns $45,000–presumably much less than she would or could have earned as a high-profile social worker.

Is it really that great a sacrifice to go into teaching? I would hope not; I’d hope that those who do it enjoy it enough that they don’t perceive it as a sacrifice. Yes, it’s tough, but it can be immensely rewarding too. Is a salary of $45,000 so bad? Well, it isn’t much money in NYC, but one can live on it, especially if one is 25 and doesn’t have major financial obligations.

The layoffs–which were really the point of the article–will hurt veteran and new teachers alike. They will hurt the classrooms. No layoff system will mitigate that. But one of the weakest arguments on behalf of the younger teachers is that they gave up possible fame and fortune for the sake of the kids.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ms. Sherwood, or at least the author of the article, seem to think a fancy title and ample compensation were, if not guaranteed, highly likely in her original goal.
    It would also be prudent to consider if Ms. Sherwood would have been making a “difference” in a good way, or increasing the number of people who are infantilized by a “sturdier” safety net so that they become permanent, helpless wards of the state.
    If she is, indeed, a good teacher, she may find herself generating competent indepenced.
    Possible conflict here.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    A high-profile social worker? There is no such creature. Social work pays less than teaching. She’s a “family-studies major” ? Yeah, the big bucks and prestige were just waiting for her to grasp – not.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A few disjointed observations:

    * The first two paragraphs make her sound like a much more craven, petty creature than the rest of the article does. I actually ended the article with a very positive impression of her.

    * It’s easy to have lofty aspirations for change when that change involves how to structure the spending of other people’s money.

    * For the people we really want as teachers, it *is* a huge sacrifice, at least in financial terms. I took a 94% pay cut to go to grad school, where I currently teach college students. Of course there are trade-offs, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. There were incentives to do it. But to say I didn’t give anything up just because, on balance, the decision seemed a good one, is to fail to understand what it means to sacrifice something. Likewise, if I go into collegiate or even high school teaching instead of returning to law (all of which are still possibilities at this point) I’ll be giving up significant cash flow opportunities and social esteem in favor of other interests.

    When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it wasn’t merely for the killing. It was, one can assume, to gain the sort of moral standing that comes with obeying God. So, from a certain point of view, it was a “good deal” (if painful and difficult decision) for Abraham, who was not compelled in any way to raise his knife. But it was still going to be a sacrifice.

  4. Genevieve says:

    I think the financial sacrifice depends on what the alternatives were/are. If the alternatives are social work, early childhood education(ie non-school district preschool), and other human services fields, than teaching will probably pay better and have better benefits. If the alternative is financial services, MIS, etc, than there will probably be a financial sacrifice.

    My mother left teaching and school districts to become a MSW therapist. She took a very large cut in pay (she had an EdD and 10plus years of experience). For several years as a therapist she worked in a therapeutic preschool classroom. The 1st year classroom teacher with only a BA made the same amount of money on a 10 month contract as my mother earned working for 12 months (3 weeks vacation). The teacher also had much better benefits. So I find the idea of teaching as a financial sacrifice simplistic.

  5. Michael,

    You make good points about sacrifice. Still, I question the article’s implication that teaching is some sort of charity work–that the really valuable teachers are those who gave up the riches they could have had in order to do good for the kids. There may be partial truth to it, but it gets overblown.

    I also question the notion that teachers should be driven by a desire to help the needy. In some sense, all students are needy; they need to learn. Students from poor families have even more need. But teaching is much more than a social service, and this often gets overlooked.

  6. People who go into teaching out of a love for academics don’t usually wind up in elementary classrooms. They are far more likely to teach at the college or possibly high school level.

    Elementary teachers typically go into it because they love kids and “want to make a difference in their lives”, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    I think one of the big problems with education in the U.S. is that primary teachers are too focused on the touch-feely side of teaching and not enough focused on the academics.

  7. Cranberry says:

    Family Studies leads the pack on this list of the “20 Worst Paying College Degrees in 2010:”

    You’d be better off studying Art History.

    A nonprofit Executive Director makes ~$55,000, according to PayScale:

    So, not so much with the “ample salary.” $45,000 looks quite good for someone a few years out of college.

  8. Economics aside, too often people use the idea of teaching being a sacrifice or noble profession as a way to shut up teachers. (Also teachers use this same idea to seek sympathy)

    “You need to be coming in every Saturday to give tutorials and some Sundays; don’t complain, its for the kids”

    Reformers often talk about doing what is best for the kids and not the adults. While it makes a nice sound byte, teachers are still people and deserve to have adequate working conditions. (Some of their reforms are good I just hate when this rhetoric is used)

    Teachers perpetuate this idea that teaching is a “calling” not a job. I try to point his out in the teacher’s lounge and get blank stares. I’m sure many lawyers, doctors, engineers, business people feel they are called to their careers as well, lets get over ourselves. Do some of us sacrifice possible financial reward? Definitely, but others are making more than if they did something else. Its a back-breaking job in my opinion, but I do get summers off.

  9. “I guarantee that if you let me guide you and if you work hard, you’ll leave this class knowing more about science than you did when you arrived.”

    Shoot for the stars. Couldn’t anyone who isn’t completely incompetent guarantee that? She got outstanding reviews – I believe about 90% of teachers do.

    Somehow she has this idea that idealism is a prerequisite for doing her job. Maybe what she needs is a dose of realism. LIFO reqirements were written as job protection for senior teachers – it’s not all about her.

  10. My point, as I said before, was not to pass judgment on this teacher. It’s Fernanda Santos’s portrayal of her that I find problematic.

    Yes, you’re right, her pledge to the students isn’t anything earth-shattering. But I’ve heard it before; it may be something new teachers are taught to say.