Teaching: America’s most undervalued profession


Though teachers are responsible for shaping the minds of the future, they are less respected in American society than doctors, businessmen, and lawyers (Photo Credit: Katie Schubert).

When I began to apply to colleges, my mother (a fifth grade teacher) asked me what I wanted to major in.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “Certainly not anything math-related.”

She ignored my feeble attempt at a joke and continued in what seemed like a prepared speech.

“I would never want you to become a teacher,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t find it rewarding; I really enjoy teaching a lot of the time. I just don’t want that life for you.”

Parents often encourage their children to enter prestigious fields such as medicine and law, but it is rare to encounter someone who has been steered toward the teaching profession. This is because American teachers work long hours for little pay, receiving virtually no accolades for the work they do. Teachers, however, are the key to changing our educational system for the better. All we have to do is treat them with the respect they deserve.

Though the United States is seen as a world leader in areas such as economics and business, it is ranked relatively low in education internationally. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study that ranks countries’ education systems based on the performance of 15-year-old students, ranked the US 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science in 2012. U.S. high school graduation rates ranked 18th.

Because of the low prestige afforded to the profession of teaching, many top students do not even consider teaching when choosing a future career. Teaching programs at U.S. colleges are not very competitive, and only a bachelor’s degree is required to teach in the US. In contrast, a five-year master’s degree is required to teach in Finland, a country with an exceptional education system. According to an article by Learning First Alliance, becoming a teacher in Finland is as competitive as getting into an Ivy League school. Only one out of every 10 applicants is accepted into a teacher preparation program, and only eight universities in Finland offer teaching programs. This system ensures that top graduates will be attracted to an educational profession, allowing Finland to produce only highly skilled teachers.

Another reason that Finland’s educational system is so successful is that Finnish teachers are revered in Finnish society. According to Learning First Alliance, teaching is consistently rated one of the most admired professions, ahead of medical doctors, lawyers, and architects. In a recent survey, 35% of Finns included teacher among the top five preferred professions for the ideal spouse. This is indicative of the high status that teachers in Finland enjoy.

Ms. Renee Pena, a Spanish teacher at Mercy, finds the respect afforded to American teachers lacking when compared to countries like Finland.

“I know that in Finland, they pay teachers like engineers,” said Ms. Pena. “Also, you don’t get flack for being a teacher in Finland . . . There’s a lot less respect here. I can tell you that for a fact.”

This lack of respect is creating an enormous turnover rate for teachers: according to Forbes, 46% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. This traps schools in a constant struggle to keep themselves staffed and decreases the appeal of teaching. Ms. Pena sees this as a serious problem.

“The turnover rate for teachers is tremendous,” Ms. Pena said, “and it has a lot to do with respect. The system that’s put forth for them is not wonderful.”

Another fault in the system that Ms. Pena referred to is that teachers are used as scapegoats for the many problems with the American educational system. For example, teachers are blamed for students’ low test scores when in reality, a myriad of factors influence students’ performance on assessments.

“We get challenged a lot,” said Ms. Pena, “which is good in a certain sense, but sometimes it goes too far.”

The most obvious reason that the status of American teachers needs to be improved is that their work molding students’ minds shapes our country’s destiny. As Italian educational reformer Maria Montessori said, “Within the child lies the fate of the future.” We need to start treating teachers at least as well as we treat corporate CEOs and lawyers.

Ms. Pena understands the true value of her profession.

“I know what I’m doing is a great thing, and I know it’s hard,” Ms. Pena said. “A good teacher is invaluable.”

When the U.S. as a whole recognizes what Ms. Pena has, our educational system will be on its way to effective reform. When this reform is complete, I hope that parents will say to their children, “I would be so happy if you became a teacher.”