The news that the governor’s education budget included no new money for the school finance formula (though it would fund additional students in our state’s schools and an increase in certain areas of special education) was met with disappointment, bordering on despair, in education circles.
After all, the hard-won boost in school finance of 2016 designed to enhance teacher compensation and, thereby, schools’ ability to attract great teachers depends upon annual increases to at least match inflationary pressures. Taking a year off would be a setback, possibly the start of a whole process of erosion of the progress schools had made.
While we won’t know the actual outcome for school finance this year until, in all probability, March, I do believe it is reasonable to conclude that all is most definitely not lost. I say this in part because I plan to work hard this session to find constructive ways to improve the financial picture for schools. And I say this even more because regardless of what happens in Pierre this year, education remains a wonderful profession with myriad reasons to enter it. Attracting educators to our schools is about more than any one factor.
But let’s start with that one factor. In his work, Drive, which distills the best research on motivation, Daniel Pink, notes that the appropriate “strategy is to get compensation right — and then get it out of sight.”
In other words, pay a sufficient amount that people can have a comfortable standard of living and then focus on other aspects of work happiness. Unfortunately, I sometimes think education is invested in a message of deprivation — but that is neither the topic of this column nor one I will probably ever write — which for some people creates an echo chamber of unhappiness. Education, as an economic enterprise, pays today probably better than it ever has. We need to keep maintaining that progress but focusing exclusively on that is not likely to make educators happier in their work nor education more attractive to the next generation of career-seekers.
But there are any number of such factors which can be and, for many, are. Take today, for example. It’s Christmas Eve. I am not at work. The Mitchell Board of Education generously provided me this day as a holiday. I started working professionally in education in 1986. In the past 33 years, I have not worked on Christmas Eve a single time.
The same goes for Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving Friday, Easter, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day. But it’s not the”‘not worked on” I am emphasizing. I love work. But I also love having a holiday off to spend with family. Unlike retailers, soldiers, physicians, ministers, reporters and so many others, educators never have to explain their absence from present-opening on Christmas Eve.
Or take the incredible level of support we in education receive. Tennessee Williams may have relied on the kindness of strangers but educators usually know the people lending them a hand day in and day out. Foremost among them are their fellow toilers in the educational fields. School people are “people people,” one of the biggest reasons they choose education as a profession.
As a result, teachers enjoy a work environment in which they are surrounded by people who care. But it doesn’t end there. So many parents and relatives and community members are always looking for ways to lend a hand. The other day, I visited an elementary school and noticed an enormous tray of goodies. It was from parents who didn’t even have children in that school. It was from people who had once had children in that school and wanted their past teachers to know how much they still appreciated them. Who does that? What next, a card with a dollar inside from someone I delivered newspapers to in Sioux Falls when I was 10?
Or take retirement. The South Dakota Retirement System is arguably the most secure public pension in the country. Add that to social security and a few dollars you’ve set aside and one of the fears of old age vanishes like a bad dream upon wakening.
Or take the most fundamental reason — the very best reason — to be attracted to becoming an educator. Last week, I was chatting with a kindergarten classroom in the hallway when a plucky 5-year-old asked if I could do magic. My puzzled expression ended when he pointed to the hat in my hand, wondering if I could pull a rabbit out of it. How can than not brighten your day?
Last week, I attended the Christmas programs at our two Hutterite community schools, places where goodwill, hard work, joy, and children abound. And I get to be a part of that. When I think of the heroes of my childhood, Agnes Tenneboe, Marlys Schmidt, Wendell McChesney, Betty Anderson, and Joanne Johnson take center stage. My teachers, from K to 12, one and all. I watch Mitchell graduates move on in their lives and become successful and healthy and happy and I think, “I had some very small part in making that happen.”
That, ultimately, is the promise of a career in education, the joy and meaning and sense of a life well spent.