That's not to say I buy into the idea that teaching is such a noble job people should do it for free.
I can think of no profession (besides religious orders) in which recruiters mythologize work with words like calling and service. School reformers insist they need the "best and brightest" to rescue American education. But they want these superstars cheap, or they're willing to pay well only those teachers whose students all ace standardized tests.
My father earned a $52,000 salary after three decades of teaching government in the Midwest. After he retired in 1998, a friend dangled a parochial position, saying Dad would start at the top: $32,000.
"You'd have to be pretty damn committed to take that," he recalled. "I wondered how they could make a living."
The green elephant
In the much-debated education-reform documentary Waiting for "Superman,"
selfless urban charter school teachers are shown working miracles. But the movie doesn't say what they earn for all the 12-hour days and six-day weeks.
Desperately seeking fresh blood, the government staged a pro-teaching pep rally at Temple University last week, featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and actor Tony Danza, who seemed sad at the poor ratings for his A&E series about playing school at Northeast High.
Ackerman gamely tried to sell the high school and college students in the audience on a career that could find them vilified by politicians, smacked by a student, or both.
"I call it being a servant," she preached. "This is God's work. There's nothing more satisfying."
As Ackerman talked, the Temple Spanish education major sitting next to me leaned over, concerned.
"What's the incentive?" whispered senior Faris Algeo. "Why should it be all about sacrifice? Why does teaching have to be less prestigious than everything else?"
Richard Ingersoll taught high school until he got fed up, earned a Ph.D., and joined the Graduate School of Education faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The pay, the respect, the working conditions, all of these things make this a better job," the professor mused. "It's really unfortunate. Because all I ever wanted to be was a high school history teacher."
Ingersoll studies teacher quality, turnover, and pay and agrees educators are held to an unreal standard.
"If you are a professional athlete, wanting more money and having no loyalty to a team is fine," he pointed out. "But teachers are supposed to be so altruistic. If they want money, they look greedy."
With 3.9 million jobs, teaching is among the nation's largest occupations. Three-fourths of all teachers are women, a gender imbalance exacerbated by economics: Nationally, the median salary after 30 years is just $65,000.
Algeo, a Huntingdon Valley native, remains undeterred. Her mother is an oncologist, her father a radiologist. They support her plans to teach but warn that "you're setting yourself up for a much lower standard of living than you're used to."
And as for the push to get more men in education? Algeo's boyfriend informed her that he didn't see himself standing at a chalkboard for long.
"He says, 'I'll be a history teacher if that's what it takes to become an administrator.' "
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-4670. Visit my Web page and connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.