My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
People paid to talk about public policy on TV discuss teaching careers in the U.S. largely in terms of positive externalities. Not that they use that specific term, but that’s what most of their talk comes down to.
For those of you who haven’t studied economics since high school (or ever), some definitions would probably be helpful. An “externality” is anything within an economy that 1) affects the “true” price of a good or service, and 2) is not naturally reflected in the prices set by that economy. Essentially, they’re places where the free market tends to break down. A common example of a negative externality (something that makes the price of a good/service lower than it should be) is a coal plant. The coal plant creates energy from a fairly abundant, easy-to-harvest source, and energy tends to be a perfectly-competitive good (no plant’s energy is inherently better than any other’s, so plants compete against each other to set the lowest price (please ignore that this doesn’t happen in real life; that’s a whole different post), so the price of energy from a coal plant tends to be fairly low- much lower than energy from a nuclear or solar plant. However, the pollution caused by a coal plant has multiple negative effects – the air quality is worse, the buildings are blackened by soot, the white moths start getting eaten more frequently than black ones in a separate analogy used by a high-school biology textbook to explain natural selection (inside joke there, sorry) – and these negative effects cost money to repair (increased air filter usage, building cleaning, the people in the town need to make money at a faster-than-average rate because they’re going to die sooner). But, without some sort of intervention by the government, the coal company won’t pay for these extra costs, even though their plant creates them. Once they are forced to pay the extra costs, they have to raise prices to keep the same profits (or, in a perfectly-competitive market, to stay in business), and the new price more accurately reflects the total cost of coal energy. These negative effects that the company would not normally pay for in a free market economy are externalitites.
But positive externalities also exist. Say that the coal plant brings enough money to the town that the living conditions in working-class neighborhoods greatly improve, with the crime rates dropping as more jobs become available. This would allow the town to spend less money on its police force, creating a surplus in the city coffers where one would have previously not existed. Whenever you hear about a city giving some big company breaks on its taxes to relocate to that city, the city is betting on the company’s presence creating massive positive externalities for its budget elsewhere.
Externalities also exist for individual careers. If a job requires a great deal of training, then employers need to acknowledge that by raising salaries: if doctors didn’t make a lot of money, what motivation would students have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to go to medical school? They could go into business right out of college and earn tens of thousands of dollars in the same time period their pre-med colleagues are spending the same amount. So education is an individual negative externality: it creates costs for the individual that somebody else has to pay for.
So what, then, would a positive individual externality be? It would have to involve a career that confers benefits on the individual not reflected in its salary. So if a doctor feels much better about her life because she’s able to help people for a living, her job now has a positive externality- she’s getting an extra benefit out of the job on top of the standard salary for her position. Of course, individual positive externalities such as this are generally not met with a reduction in salary- it would be impractical to lower salaries on an individual basis, and while cutting salaries across the board might mean that only the truly dedicated doctors stay in the profession, it would also mean that the medical industry would lose a number of talented individuals who don’t get that additional charge of meaning from their jobs- they likely enjoy their work, but not so much that they are willing to take significant pay cuts. They would have to be replaced by new doctors, ones who would not have been talented enough to get a job before the pay cut, but who enjoy medicine enough to take the reduced salary (or perhaps they have few enough alternate options that they are willing to take the reduced salary).
If this happened in the medical community, people would be up in arms, demanding that higher salaries be reinstated so that they would be sure to get the best possible doctor the next time they were sick or hurt. But when those same people consider the teaching profession, they excuse the abysmally low salaries given to teachers by listing the positive externalities those teachers receive: “Well, their job is personally fulfilling, so they don’t need to have such high salaries. Plus they get summers off, they have flexible schedules once school gets out…” and so on, as if these benefits had anything to do with the quality of teacher who would be willing to take the average education salary.
To a certain extent, these externalities do offset bad salaries: if an educator enjoys teaching, and enjoys the flexibility of schedule that the teaching lifestyle permits, he may be willing to take a lower salary. Many excellent teachers take this trade-off and do not regret it. But I would be shocked if there were not many more individuals with all of the skills necessary to become excellent teachers who do not enter the profession because, for them, the non-financial benefits do not outweigh the financial penalties associated with the profession. I would not be surprised if many of these individuals who pass on teaching would end up better teachers than the ones we currently had, were they paid a salary more commensurate with their education, abilities, and work ethic.
I claim no great skill as a teacher. But more and more, I’m wondering if the salaries associated with teaching are too small even for my paltry talents, especially in higher education, where temporary adjunct positions seem to be replacing full professor positions at an ever-increasing rate. Much has been made of the highly-competitive teaching program in Finland, where teachers must gain a Master’s degree and place in the top 5% of the national certification program to even be allowed to teach. These educators are paid salaries more commensurate with doctors and lawyers, and the amount of work they have to put in to even get a position suggests that they earn it. Finland has one of the best education systems in the world.
This is, perhaps, my biggest issue with staying in the teaching profession, and the central problem that creates so much of my ambivalence toward this particular career track. To be a teacher in the United States is to take a low salary that you might fulfill a passion for education (or take a low salary because it’s still higher than anything else for which you could qualify). I often enjoy teaching, and certainly prefer it to my previous career as a banker, but it doesn’t confer any great extra benefits for me. The flexibility it gives my schedule often just means that I spend my time far less efficiently than if a boss were looking over my shoulder, the summers off mean that I spend the period from March to May scrambling to find a minimum-wage summer job that will allow me to make rent, and the ability to work within the realm of English Literature just means that I spend a ton of time reading bad interpretations of the works, attempting to explain them to audiences that find them too difficult to bother understanding, and hearing from disgruntled students that they’re a waste of time. I have discovered that loving literature does not always go hand-in-hand with a desire to communicate this love. Perhaps books are better left as something I can come home to, rather than something I have to strive with every day. Maybe I should take refuge in my interests, instead of attempting to turn them into careers for which I (1) will be underpaid and (2) will gain no benefit from my interest in them. Of course, that leaves the question of what to do instead…
In the end, I am still going to apply to Ph.D programs in the fall, and if I get into one I will still have to teach. If I don’t, I will still probably seek out teaching positions, partly because I’m qualified and have experience, partly because the job isn’t all that bad. The moments where you get through to students are always neat, and I’m certainly happy to have my summers free for the present. Maybe teaching happened to me while I was making plans. But, as always in life, the ambiguities remain.