The Century Foundation‘s blog Blog of the Century recently brought to my attention a recent episode of How I Met Your Mother in which one of the most popular current sitcoms manages to demean teachers through what is supposed to be a sweet, supportive husband and wife moment between the two characters Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan). Lily gets upset because someone refers to her as “just a kingergarten teacher”. TCF’s blogger Corey Bunje Bower describes how he expected Marshall to respond by telling Lily that being a kindergarten teacher is one of the most important jobs, because it is, but instead he tells his wife ,“No, it’s not too late. You’re going to quit your job, tomorrow, and you’re gonna go back and pick up right where you left off with that art stuff.” Cue up my “UGGHHHHH” track.
Marshall manages to insult the work his wife has invested her time and energy into and insult all teachers in a show that is practically as non-offensive as possible, showing us how normal it is to degrade and devalue teachers in American society.
This is a labor market issue and an economics issue. How do we expect to incentivize and maintain high quality teachers if we view the occupation as “just a teacher” that is the stopping point on to something else important for the talented workers? No right-minded hard-working person would channel those energies in to work that we’re led to believe isn’t worthy of respect and certainly not worthy of high pay. However, this is ALL WRONG! Stanford Professor of Economics and NBER Researcher Eric Hanushek found that each additional year of good teaching (better than the standard) can increase a student’s overall lifetime earnings by $400,000. We know teachers are a very relevant piece of the puzzle that contributes to students’ academic success, but Hanushek reminds us that this has real monetary value. It’s a long game, but if we respect teachers and invest in them with fair pay, our economy will be stronger for it.
We should also remember that this is a women’s issue. Lily is “just a kindergarten teacher,” making up part of the 98% of preschool and kindergarten teachers who are women. Overall, women make up 73.6% of all education, training and library occupations. When we devalue education professions, we devalue women’s work. Economic and sociology studies have found that a high proportion of women in an occupation leads to lower wages for those jobs, holding constant required education, experience, and skill level. Teaching is one example of what economists call “caring labor,” which is labor that improves the capabilities of people, and often of people who are least able to pay for the services, like little kids. Caring laborers also are overwhelmingly women in general, with teachers being part of that. So what we need to do as a society is publicly fund this work so that we can all benefit from an economy of workers with the best capabilities.
We are disservicing our teachers, women, society and the economy when we devalue this work and treat it like it isn’t important work to be done.