Thursday, April 25, 2013

Oh, Those Golden Handcuffs

When I left my last school district, making well over $70,000 (those of you in California reading this will say “so what,” but in upstate New York, a house that would cost $500,000-$600,000 in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area where I used to live and teach only costs $125,000-$225,000), I found it nigh impossible to reestablish with a school district.

My resume looked pretty good – 18 years teaching secondary school and college, three teaching credentials (English, Spanish, ESL), experience being  a department chair (three times), a program manager (twice), and a curriculum designer (twice), oodles of experience with the school accreditation process (four cycles), a fair amount of committee work, and some educational technology experience to boot.  My references were excellent – a small stack of emphatically supportive letters from various people at different levels stretching back 24 months or so.

Then an interviewer in 2011 told me, mid-interview, that there was a problem with my experience.  They simply would not agree to pay anyone in accordance with their experience, citing the ample supply of eager teachers who would work for much, much less.  In my case, that meant that if they were going to offer me a job (which they did not, because I ended the interview) it would be at a salary of perhaps $43,000 instead of $73,000.

Vivek Wadhwa, a blogger and “top influencer,” also a Fellow at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, wrote an inspiring article just today (4/25/13) on how industry de-values experience and expertise at its own peril.  An excerpt:
True, some older workers become complacent as they age. They become set in their ways, stop learning new technologies, and believe they are entitled to the high wages they earned at their peak. Their careers stagnate for a valid reason. But these are the exception rather than the rule. Whether it is in computer programming or entrepreneurship, older workers have many advantages—they still are the guru’s [sic].
This entry immediately followed, and was a direct sequel to, a post Wadhwa had written on 4/22/13, on the rampant ageism in the tech industry.  An excerpt:
It may be wrong, but look at this from the point of view of the employer. Why would any company pay a computer programmer with out-of-date skills a salary of say $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduate — who has no skills — for around $60,000? Even if it spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far ahead. The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and are like a clean slate: They will rapidly learn the latest coding methods and techniques, and they don’t carry any “technology baggage.” The older worker likely has a family and needs to leave the office by 6 p.m. The young can easily pull all-nighters.

What the tech industry often forgets is that with age comes wisdom. Older workers are usually better at following direction, mentoring, and leading. They tend to be more pragmatic and loyal...
The two essays, both absolute must-reads, are two sides of the coin of the realm in the modern world of work – expediency over expertise; malleability over maturity; deference over dynamism.  Employers want people cheap, who will do the job, loyally and faithfully even to a fault, and not get in the way of management’s mission.  And the fact is (and we can admit this as an empirical truth) older folks are less likely to have the kinds of flexibility required of that type of management style.

The redactio ad absurdum at the end of this slippery slope is a scene right out of Ayn Rand’s Anthem:
You shall do that which the Council of Vocations shall prescribe for you. For the Council of Vocations knows in its great wisdom where you are needed by your brother men, better than you can know it in your unworthy little minds. And if you are not needed by your brother men, there is no reason for you to burden the earth with your bodies…
...Thus must all men live until they are forty. At forty, they are worn out. At forty, they are sent to the Home of the Useless, where the Old Ones live. The Old Ones do not work, for the State takes care of them. They sit in the sun in summer and they sit by the fire in winter. They do not speak often, for they are weary. The Old Ones know that they are soon to die. When a miracle happens and some live to be forty-five, they are the Ancient Ones, and children stare at them when passing by the Home of the Useless.  (ch. 1)
Hyperbole? Perhaps.  But bit by bit, older teachers are being forced out in a war of attrition, either for financial reasons, philosophical reasons, or a combination of the two – refer to the saga of Gerald Conti for a refresher course on how principles (as well as principals!) are driving many teachers to abandon the career that many have lovingly dedicated their lives to – and once forced out, it is increasingly difficult for them to find purchase in another teaching position.  They’re just too expensive, and expertise has so little value anymore.

Not only do older teachers cost more (most schools use a salary schedule), but instead of being respected, the changing climate of America public education puts modern progressive mores in direct conflict with the values of most teachers 45+, which has the net effect of stigmatizing older teachers and their experience. I have had numerous hiring committees and district administrators tell me that it's simply not worth it to hire an experienced teacher, unless s/he can be paid a starting teacher price. Younger teachers are more malleable, more eager to please, and more willing to drink the Kool-Aid. There also seems to be a pervasive feeling that older, more experienced teachers, when they try to share their experiences with younger faculty – especially when and if their views diverge, as is more and more the case these days – are somehow hegemonic in asserting their wisdom and experience, as if that somehow invalidates the energy and youthful missionary zeal of younger teachers. It is incredibly divisive, and there seems to be an us vs. them, at least in public school systems I've looked at lately, especially in the current educational climate.

I used to mock professional athletes when they would “hold out,” demanding to be paid “what they’re worth.”  Now I kind of get it.

But here’s a final thought, a sort of counterpoint:  I’m teaching college now, as an adjunct on two campuses.  I’m waiting to hear if I made it through to the third round of interviews for a tenure-track position at one of them.  If I get the job, I will be ecstatic.  It does not bother me that the salary will likely be $20,000-$25,000 less than I would get as a high school teacher.  This is not all about money… there are more ways than just money to value an employee, and to demonstrate that value through a supportive and collegial environment and a teacher-friendly atmosphere.  More and more, public schools have neither.  (My college is, thankfully, an embarrassment of riches in this regard.)  At this point, I don’t know if an offer of $75,000 would be sufficient to bring me back, even though my family desperately needs the benefits, the health care, and the stability.
Gerald Conti is leaving the career that he loves after 28 years; I’m guessing his salary is far more than mine was when I left my last school district on "Salary Step 19."  He could hang on for two more years and become more fully vested in his retirement plan, netting him a significant bump in future disbursements.  He is choosing not to.  He is lucky to have the financial stability to be able to make that principled decision.  A lot of veteran teachers do not – they are chained to their job by the very real threat of not being able to find another one, at least not one that pays anything close to what they’re worth, locked in place by the Golden Handcuffs.

What is the key to unlock the Golden Handcuffs?  I dunno.  I’m just…

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I am chained. Over the many years I've worked in my district, so many things have changed (for the absolute worse) yet I can't leave. Financially and for my family it would be completely irresponsible. Yet I was responsible for most of the curriculum my department teaches and even the assignments and projects most of those new "cheap" teachers use. They got what they wanted. And any thanks, gratitude, appreciation....hahahaha. Right. So I just keep my head down, stay out of the way and love my kids. That's what's keeping me here. My kids. And that I have my own kid going to college in a few years. This system doesn't quite work.