Are teachers overpaid?

Critical Mass started an interesting debate: are teachers underpaid? The argument why they should be paid more seems a bit on the weak side: they have great job security, relatively good benefits like a summer off, and comparatively decent pay. My mother works 30 something hours a week, she has her summer off, and she makes more than I do as a university professor. Oh. And she lives in a less expensive area, has far less education, but admittedly more work experience.

The debate was taken on by O’DonnellWeb who takes the whole issue apart by bringing it back to supply and demand. Getting a university degree in education is relatively easy (he claims), there are plenty of people qualified to teach, and frankly it isn’t such a difficult job: intellectual rigor is not a requirement (he says).

Here’s what I think. The market is a powerful force to set salaries, but only when people can be trusted to do what’s best for them. People will often aim for job security at all cost. That’s when the system fall apart. Once you have tenure, the school could freeze your salary and many people would never leave… sad… and I’ve recently heard someone say “if I don’t get tenure, where else could I get a job?” These comments are interesting to me. Where else could you get a job? What about the average joe who works at company X and company X fires him… is his life over? Not even close!

People in academia are very insecure. My theory is that most of them have been sheltered for so long, that they have no idea how the world works.

Think of yourself as wolf. You’ve spotted a nice forest where there is plenty to eat… then, one day, you have hard time finding new prey, or maybe there are hunters nearby shooting at you, or maybe they are cutting down the forest. Don’t stand there! Move, go! Any wolf would know this. “But where will I find a new forest? What if there aren’t any?” Well, you’ll die then. But you know what? Failure is ok. Getting stuck in a bad spot is ok. As long as you still feel free to go whenever it is best for you. But my skills are not easily transferable? Ah. See, you should have thought of that earlier on: pick new skills carefully, make sure they can serve in many settings otherwise, be willing to pay a price later on.

I think nobody should go straight from school to a tenure-track position. It is a bad choice: many people will then tend to overvalue their tenure which will be detremental to them if they have tenure at a bad place.

Update: I think we could make the world a better place by requiring teachers and professors to have real work experience (outside schools). Right now, we discourage students to get work experience outside universities: I think we should require it. When I was a professor at Acadia, they wanted to make industry experience a requirement. It was a brilliant move and I hope they did it. Everyone would be better off.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Are teachers overpaid?”

  1. That’s an interesting comment. People get a Ph.D. to remain in academia. Maybe. I didn’t do a Ph.D. for this reason. I actually wanted a Ph.D. as a basis to go work in industrial R&D. Whether this was wise or not is another story.

    This being said, students usually have funny expectations. People get a degree in translation because they want to translate novels: most translation work is related to marketing or management paperwork. People go into engineering because they want to design new products: most engineering is routine work, if not straight management. Some med school students want to save lives, and end up prescribing aspirin to whining patients. Some law students want to fight for justice and they end up representing the husband who wants a divorce.

    The world is such that you have to compromise. Compromise can actually be a good thing: conflict between what you expect the world to be and what you actually experience is not a bad thing. If you start your life accepting only one true path, irrespective of what you experience, then you are in trouble. I’d say, as far as Ph.D.s are concerned, we are all in trouble because this one true path has been set once and for all.

    Most young professionals take their career in charge and do not blindly want a job-for-life at one place. Maybe they are at the right place now. Maybe it won’t be the right place in 5 years. Who is to know? If Ph.D. holder behaved like this, looking for the best job, the best salary, maybe not in academia, maybe we would all have an healthier life.

    Because this healthy attitude is rejected in academia, people have lost negotiating power. If I could setup a university tomorrow, and offer professorships at 30k$/year, I’d probably fill it with Ph.D. holders, some of them having post-docs, most of them having substantial post-Ph.D. experience.

    It is not normal, it isn’t healthy.

    I say it openly: I currently have a professorship. If tomorrow some company offers me a great job in R&D, for a better salary, and in Montreal, I may very well take it. If I see the opportunity to start a great company, I might do it. And so on. Not only that, but if I become unhappy with my current, I might actively seek out another job. And I make no excuse for it.

  2. And here’s a concrete proposal: before getting a professorship, you should be required to have substantial real experience in industry (anything outside academia).

    The first thing you’d find out is that we would have better professors with programs better adapted to the modern students. We’d probably have much less competition for professorships and many people would choose to remain in industry. Worse: you’d find out that many students, when considering this new requirement, would suddenly choose another career (and I argue they’d be happier for doing so).

    Now, not only is this not encouraged… it is even actively discouraged. When I finished my M.Sc. I wanted to take a year off before my Ph.D. to go earn some real life experience. Everyone I talked to said it would look bad on my c.v. and would probably disqualify me for any scholarship.

    In retrospect, they were right. I would gladly support a student who’d come to me from industry, but I know many people who would get very nervous would someone who spent time “outside”.

  3. “People in academia are very insecure. My theory is that most of them have been sheltered for so long, that they have no idea how the world works.

    Then again, the most common reason that people go for a PhD is to be in academia. At least, that’s the feeling I get. Isn’t this fear justified? Is it the universities’ own fault for maintaining this atmosphere?

  4. Teachers on average work much more than 30 something” per week. With planning, marking, reporting, parent nights and meetings on top of regualar classroom teaching, they work at least 50 hours per week.

    Granted, they do get their summers, and other holidays. But, even if you factor in all the holidays (12 weeks (9 summer, 2 Christmas, 1 March Break)they still work 40 weeks per year. If you multiply 40 by 50, they work 2000 hours per year.

    The most any worker in Canada would work is 50 weeks per year (assuming 2 weeks holiday). If they work 40 hours per week that amounts to 2000 hours per year. Wow! That’s the same as teachers.

    Furthermore, most professions actually get more than 2 weeks holiday so in fact teachers work more hours than most workers in Canada. How do you like them apples?

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