In a Georgia Department of Education survey of 53,000 teachers, two out of three respondents said they were unlikely or very unlikely to recommend teaching as a profession to a student.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Will Georgia ever regard teachers as professionals? 

Every year the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education assembles a list of top 10 issues to watch in education, which usually cites funding, equity and early childhood programs. Recent lists have also included developing teacher leaders and keeping teachers teaching. 

The newly released 2019 list has a call-to-action that’s long overdue: “Elevating the profession of teaching -- now.”

“Every year someone in the Legislature says we need to treat teachers like professionals, but we don’t really do anything about it,” said GPEE vice president Dana Rickman. “We don’t make teachers feel like part of an elevated profession. Educators need to feel they are valued for their expertise.’’

Rickman outlined routes to enhancing professionalism -- improve wages and benefits and create professional pathways.

In the top 10 report, Rickman wrote: 

Professionals typically are well compensated and receive relatively high salary and benefit levels throughout their careers. The assumption is that, given the lengthy training and the complexity of the knowledge and skills required, relatively high levels of compensation are necessary to recruit and retain capable and motivated individuals. In Georgia, the average teacher salary was $55,532 in 2017, which was 23rd in the nation for teacher pay, slightly less than the national average of $59,660…In terms of a professional salary, teachers earn less money, on average, than their private-sector counterparts. In 2016, Georgia teacher wages were 72% of other similarly educated private-sector employees. The national average is 75% of similarly educated private-sector workers. Not only do teachers earn less money than their professional counterparts, teacher salaries in real dollars have been declining over time.”

The report concludes:

Professionalization includes how the profession is viewed, compensated, and mentored and supported for ongoing professional learning. Attracting and retaining talented professionals in the field means compensating and supporting that talent like professionals. In most cases, this will require additional revenue. To be clear, new revenue should not subsidize outdated pay systems that fail to create avenues for personal and professional growth or continue to overpay poor teachers. However, Georgia needs to develop a quality teaching and leadership plan, coupled with a schedule of investments in teaching professionals, that include (1) a total compensation structure, (2) tiered certification/career ladders, and (3) meaningful professional development. The result will help Georgia achieve the goal of a highly qualified, professional educator in every classroom.

One of the first education experts I ever interviewed was University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard Ingersoll, who studies teacher retention and once taught at the University of Georgia. Nearly 20 years ago, Ingersoll told me Georgia has to improve the teaching experience, that teacher turnover is worst at schools with high numbers of student discipline problems and where teachers have no input into how the school is run.

At the time, he said. "Teachers feel they are being held accountable for things they don't control… Look, I am a former high school teacher. I would still be doing it, even with the low pay. But it was all the other stuff, the discipline problems, the lack of support and the lack of say, that made me leave." 

Little has changed in 20 years. Teachers still cite “the other stuff” among the reasons they quit. In a Georgia Department of Education survey of 53,000 teachers released in 2016, two out of three respondents said they were unlikely or very unlikely to recommend teaching as a profession to a student.

Among the comments from teachers: "Teachers are often blamed and held accountable for things they have no control over ... I love my time with my students, but I would never choose this path again."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.