Let teachers teach, and pay the best ones

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It is pretty hard to find someone more sympathetic to the plight of teachers than me. My wife has worked for years as a teacher in kindergarten through second grade.

I’ve seen the struggles she goes through up close and personal for years. I’ve been in her classroom with her — well after hours — hanging posters, sharpening pencils, organizing papers, rearranging the room for a special project, moving bookshelves and generally getting ready for kids to learn.

I’ve also seen her take her work home, prep for hours doing lesson planning, recording grades and keeping up with the mountain of government-mandated record keeping and student progress evaluations. The paperwork, my God, the paperwork.

I’ve also seen her struggle emotionally due to the nature of the work. A child with extreme behavioral issues literally assaulting peers and her. Having to deal with parents who just don’t care or aren’t involved, who send kids to school who are completely unprepared to learn and often emotionally scarred.

But nothing compares with the frustration I have seen with the environment of teaching. I don’t think most people fully understand the amount of garbage teachers are forced to do — which helps virtually no one — in order to fulfill a faraway bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should be required to do.

She’s been staying home for a few years with our young children, but she admitted to me before that a real desire to perhaps get out of the profession. It was exhausting, and so many limitations have been placed on her ability to actually teach, that she felt more like a record keeper than an educator.

And make no mistake, my wife is a phenomenal teacher. She was so good, in fact, that the school she worked at in northern Virginia used to give her most of the kids who were not at grade level, or who were designated as English-as-a-second-language learners. She always got them up to grade level and beyond before passing them to the next grade.

This is who you want in the profession. Yet the actual act of teaching was more or less taken away from her. Teachers aren’t able to teach as much, or as creatively anymore, and they’re paid a meager sum for their time.

The result has been an army of people like my wife leaving the profession.

So how do we solve that problem? Gov. Janet Mills thinks a great way would be mandating a new floor for teacher pay, raising it to $40,000. Given my regard for teachers and my up-close and personal experience watching one for years, you might think that I would support such an idea.

But you’d be wrong.

Not because I don’t think teachers deserve more money than they get. Because they do. But this proposal is the wrong way to go about it, and is exactly the kind of idea that makes the system so broken in the first place.

To begin, the state proposes funding to make this happen, but the way the proposal is structured, the real cost of this salary increase is going to fall into the laps of the local communities and property taxpayers, and that punch will be worse in rural Maine.

But more important is the basic philosophy at work. A blanket raise like this has nothing to do with teacher quality. Salaries should be variable based on teacher quality and performance, not arbitrary “levels” that are increased as a matter of course. Good teachers should be able to make significantly more money, and we should have more flexibility to move on from teachers that are not performing.

Tying quality to pay would be a great step, as would unshackling our teachers from the government leviathan of mandates on their back that prevent them from teaching. Do those things, and you just might find more people interested in coming to, and staying in, the profession.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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