On Teachers and Others

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

So far the angry teachers of Wisconsin have not yet won over the public. They have not convinced the majority that, in an age of staggering budget deficits, they — or, indeed, public employees in general — must as a veritable birthright enjoy salary, benefits, and pensions on average far more generous than those of their private-sector counterparts, who make up the majority of taxpayers.

Teachers are right that the crisis transcends compensation. Yet why, others might ask, would teachers’ unions oppose merit pay? Why should someone who did not join the union still have to pay its dues? Why should the state have to collect the dues from employee paychecks on behalf of the union? Moreover, when these questions are posed amid a landscape of teachers skipping classes to protest, urging students to join them, and soliciting fraudulent doctors’ notes to cover their cancellations of classes — while their supporters in the legislature hide out to prevent a quorum and thereby subvert the democratic process reaffirmed last November — the public becomes further estranged from their cause.

All of this evoked my own memories of a teaching life juxtaposed with farming in the private sector. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1980 I returned home to work the trees and vines for five years in hopes of helping to restore a run-down farm. I then was employed first as a part-time teacher and then as a professor at California State University, Fresno, for 21 years (1984–2004). Some of that time I continued to farm on weekends and in the summers.

The experience was schizophrenic. In farming, almost everyone I met was constantly hustling — welders, independent truckers, contractors. There was no guaranteed income, no pension other than Social Security, and no health benefits of any kind. I bought a Farm Bureau–sponsored private health plan with a $1,000 deductible — catastrophic coverage that I never found occasion to use — and paid cash for doctor’s office visits. My first two children’s deliveries maxed out my Visa card.

There was no sick leave for the self-employed. A day with the flu meant the amount of work to do the next day doubled. Weekly compensation was not compensation at all, but rather an advance on an operating loan from the bank: If the crop came in and sold, and if at the end of the year such income exceeded expenses (I remember my first year, in 1980, we borrowed at 17 percent, and prices for everything from sulfur to fertilizer went up 10 to 15 percent in mere months), then one earned something for the year’s aggregate labor. If not (as in 1983, when, without explanation, the price of raisins crashed from $1,200 to $450 a ton), then one not merely earned nothing, but in effect paid for the privilege of working — a common, humiliating fate for the strapped pizza-parlor owner, the independent window-cleaner, or the car dealer. I figured that the 1983–84 operating losses meant that I owed the bank about $12 an hour for each hour I had driven the tractor, pruned, or irrigated, the entire time unknowingly paying for the privilege of hard physical labor. Again, all that is too familiar for legions of realtors, insurance salesmen, contractors, and the variously self-employed.

Teaching was the antithesis of everything brutal in the private sector. In my first full year, I used to write down in amazement — after prorating my annual salary on a per-diem basis — what I made on Saturdays, on the day after Christmas, on the Fourth of July, and on all the other days when I was not working. Yes, there were hours spent in the evenings correcting papers, staying long after class to advise students, endless committee work, class planning well beyond the eight-to-five grind, and research over the summer. Angry parents, administrators, and students could all at times be abusive. A pile of blue-books, totaling some 2,000 pages of poorly written essays, was no fun to go through on weekends. My colleagues sometimes bought books for their students, and often purchased their own materials. For a decade I shared a cramped office in a trailer with acoustical tiles falling on us like bombs from the ceiling.

But all that said, there were benefits, lots of them: guaranteed retirement with a defined pension; generous medical, dental, and vision coverage; and most importantly time off from the classroom. We taught about 16 weeks a semester, counting finals and introductory orientation, or 32 of 52 weeks a year. The other 20 weeks were ours to spend for “prep.” Some did, some did not, especially those who had been teaching the same classes for five or six years. Research was supposed to matter a great deal; but often it strangely did not for purposes of tenure and retention. If you achieved tenure, your job security was mostly assured. Tenure hearings and post-tenure review were both peer-directed, and the process reflected either accepted ennui or teacher solidarity rather than disinterested critique.

Merit pay was agreed to, and then ended, by the union. Dues were once required only of union members — and then suddenly they were deducted from the paychecks of everyone, members or (the vast majority) not. It became almost impossible to be fired. Retention, promotion, and tenure operated as Byzantine legal matters, since those few who were rejected inevitably enlisted the union’s help in grieving the decisions. Yet to state any of that would incur public furor from your fellow professors in direct proportion to their often cynical caricatures, in private, of the regulations and protocols.

The market seemed to prove the truth of the above. It was hard in the Eighties to find any youth who wanted to take over a farm or start out farming on his own. By 1990 most small farmers were broke or were working, at far better compensation, for corporations; in contrast, at the university we were swamped with hundreds of applications from Ph.D.s who so desperately wanted what we so often complained about. Oddly, full professors were both the highest paid and the most grumpy; exploited part-time teachers were the least well compensated, and the most stoic.

So what I remember most was our constant rationalization of our lot. In self-righteous fashion we reminded everyone that we were paid only for nine months’ work and that teaching was an art, a noble profession, not a mere job.

We talked of stress and the wear and tear of trying to teach those who not merely were not prepared, but seemed almost deliberately to resist instruction. Yet, again, teaching had different hazards from the ones encountered on the farm, where turning on an electrical pump if you had a foot in a watered furrow could spell electrocution, or catching a leg between a tractor fender and a tire tread meant it was lost.

Out in the fields, wear and tear did not result from rude deans and abusive colleagues, but arose from rather provocative characters who were willing to resort to fists, knives, or guns if one complained about how poorly they had tied down a load of fruit pallets, or how they had botched pruning a peach tree, or wired a pump wrongly. At school I had to navigate away from a vengeful colleague who tried to sabotage my classics program; on the farm I was once almost run over by the speeding Buick of a drug-soaked and armed disgruntled worker whom I had caught stealing tools from the barn. The one arena was stressful, the other life-threatening.

My purpose in relating the divide is not to suggest that the brutality of farming bears much resemblance to the private-sector office or that a university professorship is at all comparable to the much more arduous duties of an inner-city middle- or high-school teacher. But all that said, I think that we forget how fortunate teachers are in the 21st century, in terms of compensation, hours spent at work, and the general absence of physical danger, at least in comparison to the lineman, the garbage collector, or the interstate trucker. I have met hundreds of teachers who have had only one steady job: teaching. I have seldom met a land-leveler, company field man, or tractor mechanic who had not worked at a half-dozen jobs over his career — and rarely by choice.

There is a reason why our state capitols are not usually flooded by cash-strapped farmers on tractors ditching their work when the price of wheat crashes. During a power outage, electric-company linemen do not often call in sick. Those who walk nimbly between IEDs in the Hindu Kush or who braved RPGs in Fallujah did not in mediis rebus pause to suggest that they had gotten a raw deal on their far too frequent deployments. Very few corporals and privates ask medics to write false medical excuses.

So, yes, teaching is a noble profession upon which the future of our youth rests. It is not easy, and it is not as lucrative as the law or medicine. No doubt day-traders and the architects of hedge funds can make more in an hour than a sixth-grade social-studies teacher earns in a year, without either the caring or the commensurate work. Yet in comparison to most workers in the private sector, teachers are, in terms of working conditions and compensation, blessed — which is why we are told of Wisconsin that the problem is not really one of renegotiating wages, benefits, and pensions.

In these lean times, amid the furor and name-calling, we forget that teachers are not the wretched of the earth. They are often noble sorts, and that is reflected by what they make, how long they work, and the conditions under which they toil. If you doubt that, ask the almond farmer, roofer, or welder whose taxes pay their salaries.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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