Let teachers teach, and pay the best ones

It is pretty hard to find someone more sympathetic to the plight of teachers than me. My wife’s profession is elementary education, where she has worked for years as a teacher in kindergarten through second grade.

I’ve seen the struggles she goes through up close and personal for years. I’ve been in her classroom with her — well after hours — hanging posters, sharpening pencils, organizing papers, rearranging the room for a special project, moving bookshelves, and generally getting ready for kids to learn.

I’ve also seen her take her work home, prep for hours doing lesson planning, looking at student work, recording grades and keeping up with the mountain of government mandated record keeping and student progress evaluations. The paperwork, my God the paperwork.

I’ve also seen her, to be perfectly honest with you, struggle emotionally due to the nature of the work. A child with extreme behavioral issues literally assaulting peers and her. Having to deal with parents who just don’t care or aren’t involved, who send kids to school who are completely unprepared to learn and often emotionally scarred. The difficulty inherent in trying to teach a child with a developmental disability who she has to help in the same classroom with other children that are one or two grade levels ahead of where they are.

A sign supporting teachers is shown on a fence outside of Chabot Elementary School in Oakland, California on March 4. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

But nothing compares with the frustration I have seen with the environment of teaching. I alluded to the paperwork before, but I don’t think most people fully understand the amount of garbage teachers are forced to do — which helps virtually no one — in order to fulfill a far away bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should be required to do.

She’s been staying home for a few years with our young children, but she admitted to me prior to that a real desire to perhaps get out of the profession. It was exhausting, and so many limitations have been placed on her ability to actually teach, that she felt more like a record keeper than an educator. Now that she’s been out of the profession, I often wonder if she will really go back.

And make no mistake, my wife is a phenomenal teacher. She entered the profession with boundless energy and desire, desperately wanting to help teach young children. She was so good, in fact, that the school she worked at in northern Virginia used to give her most of the kids who were not at grade level, or who were designated as English as a second language learners. She always got them up to grade level and beyond before passing them to the next grade.

This is who you want in the profession. Yet the actual act of teaching was more or less taken away from her, and this is often a worse problem the higher in the educational system you go. Teachers aren’t able to teach as much, or as creatively anymore, and they’re paid a meager sum for their time.

The result has been an army of people like my wife leaving the profession.

So how do we solve that problem? Well Gov. Janet Mills thinks a great way would be mandating a new floor for teacher pay, raising it to $40,000. Given my regard for teachers and my up close and personal experience watching one for years, you might think that I would support such an idea.

But you’d be wrong.

Not because I don’t think teachers deserve more money than they get. Because they do. But this proposal is the wrong way to go about it, and is exactly the kind of idea that makes the system so broken in the first place.

To begin, the state proposes funding to make this happen, but the way the proposal is structured, the real cost of this salary increase is going to fall into the laps of the local communities and property taxpayers, and that punch will be worse in rural Maine.

But more important than that is the basic philosophy at work. A blanket raise like this, once again, has nothing to do with teacher quality. Salaries should be variable based on teacher quality and performance, not arbitrary “levels” that are increased as a matter of course. Good teachers should be able to make significantly more money, and we should have more flexibility to move on from teachers that are not performing.

Tying quality to pay would be a great step, as would unshackling our teachers from the government leviathan of mandates on their back that prevent them from teaching. Do those things, and you just might find more people interested in coming to, and staying in, the profession.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.