“A new survey paints a troubling portrait of the American educator: Teacher job satisfaction has hit its lowest point in a quarter of a century, and 75 percent of principals believe their jobs have become too complex.

The findings are part of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership. Conducted annually since 1984, the survey polled representative sampling of 1,000 teachers and 500 principals in K-12 schools across the country.

 Only 39 percent of teachers described themselves as very satisfied with their jobs on the latest survey. That’s a 23-percentage point plummet since 2008, and a drop of five percentage points just over the past year. Factors contributing to lower job satisfaction included working in schools where the budgets, opportunities for professional development, and time for collaboration with colleagues have all been sent to the chopping block. Stress levels are also up, with half of all teachers describing themselves as under great stress several days per week, compared with a third of teachers in 1985.

Given those numbers, who wants to teach besides TFA corps members who know all they have to do is last two years then go on their way to their real vocations? Teaching must be more of a profession for our most creative and thoughtful 20-somethings. We must market the opportunities to become an autonomous, creative professional with room for growth. In addition, there needs to be obvious material incentives. To its credit, TFA has started to get more of our most creative and thoughtful to become teachers. But, how do we get them to stay?

Finance and law draw many potential great teachers away from the profession. The highest state average starting salary for a teacher is approximately $40,000. The highest state average salary for all teachers is approximately $65,000 which is the average, starting salary for a first-year lawyer.

A first-year analyst in investment banking averages double that, and a third-year associate with an MBA averages $350,000 in compensation ( At the same time, the top 10 percent of teachers in the country have an average salary range from $75,190 to $80,970.

In NYS, where over 90% of teachers have a Masters degree, the highest median salaries were paid to teachers on Long Island, $101,692. The median in Central New York? $59,042. The NYS median of $69,514 (after 20 years and a Masters) includes Scarsdale’s median salary of @$130,000 (with a huge percentage of long time teachers receiving top salaries) , but that still doesn’t come close to the figures attracting the best and brightest to the private sector. Even Scarsdale is having trouble attracting as many candidates as they did in the past.

Apparently, our most motivated college grads seem to prefer the big bucks. Why are teachers paid so little in comparison? Not just the money but the prestige is in making the big bucks. Why work the same 60-80 hours per week earning a teacher’s salary and dealing with all the vile conditions and name calling? Good teachers often tell their students and their own children not to join the profession. The underlying problem is the politicization of the process. It has become too adversarial. Why bother?

Without big bucks, and no military draft to avoid (yes, that did bring a large number of very talented baby boomers to teaching in the late ‘60s), the number of good, talented teaching candidates will continue to decline. But unlike then when the vast majority stayed teachers, today’s college students are apt to go the quick temporary route via TFA. They cannot get good jobs anymore and use their brief experience to pad their resumes before they leave to go on their eventual career path. After their two-year stint, only about 20 percent of TFA Corps Members were still teaching in public schools in 2010.

A major problem is also the supply and demand of good replacement teachers. What are the chances of replacing retiring or a bad experienced teacher with a better, inexperienced one? A new study, according to Emily Johnson in her August 10, 2010 article in The Dartmouth, found that in their first two years, TFA-trained teachers do “significantly less well” in raising reading and math test scores than beginning teachers with traditional teaching certifications. Certainly, programs like Teach For America are helping recruit new, bright candidates for jobs in our worst schools. Yet, they come with caveats. First, although very bright, are Teach For Americans talented and tough enough to handle the kind of nonacademic rigor they will face? Some. Second, are they being properly trained? Only a few. Third, will they last? No. Only 20 percent last more than two years. Then, new ones have to be hired all over again. Is that what we are looking for?

It is also true that bad teachers in the system. However, the reasons for this are far more complex than the media and policy makers who have the media in their hands make it out to be. Teachers in the public schools are protected by union-obtained job security for good reason. Tenure was secured because in the old pre-union days, good teachers who fought against bad administrators were fired. Unfortunately, tenure is claimed to be the major reason bad teachers aren’t fired. Most good teachers will tell you it should be easier to get rid of those who stain the profession. Unions and districts can and do work together to work out these issues. State legislatures can update outmoded procedures and hire more hearing officers to speed the process along without losing due process.

Teachers who offer working solutions have been ignored because they have been lumped into being part of “The Union,” and therefore positioned by politicians and the media as the enemy opposed to education reform. What the policy makers refuse to see is that many teachers don’t care about choosing sides. They aren’t the ardent unionists that politicians and reporters make them out to be. They believe in the right to organize and have unions or associations fight for fair and efficient due process, good salaries, and the same medical coverage and pensions as congressmen. They are on the side of the kids and have successfully worked with them for years. In short, policy makers need to listen to teachers, and stop fighting with “The Union.”

A union, by definition, is a collective bargaining organization that protects its workers from abuses and attempts to gain the best salary and benefits for its members. It is also true, too, that unions, because of their collective nature, stifle individual members. However, that depends on the relationship between management and labor.

I have worked in three school districts. Two did not respect the professionalism of their teachers, and one did. It was no surprise that in the latter district, the highest degree of innovative and inspirational teaching took place. It also was the district where the union and board worked most closely together to benefit kids. When districts value teachers, hire carefully, pay well, give good benefits, and treat them as valued members of their community, the district’s children reap the benefits.

Who do we want as teachers? What kind of energy will they bring to the classroom? How well will they motivate students to want to learn and learn how to learn? If those happen, then whatever the techniques, that teacher has become a great teacher. Not every college graduate is cut out to teach. Not every second-career teacher is cut out to teach, regardless of his or her innate intelligence, GPA, or previous career success. Only those with specific talents can become gifted teachers who, working with a variety of learned tools and techniques, will produce students, not simply on the path to college, but rather on the path to postgraduate worlds of work and study.

As Emeritus Columbia University Professor Frank Smith has observed, “the best kind of education” is about distinctive and impassioned teaching, the kind that will engage and excite students. Often, it is the least orthodox that are the greatest teachers. As one of my great teachers told a class of mine in high school, “Think about what outstanding really means… standing out from and being above the crowd.” What is an exceptional teacher? Exceptional has come to mean best or brightest, but doesn’t it really mean to be the exception? The one who stands out from the crowd? Those are the great teachers–the ones we remember. Teachers teach. Well-trained teachers teach better. Great teachers change lives.

Weren’t your best teachers those who had practical wisdom? Weren’t they the ones who had character, along with certain principles and virtues that you may have not appreciated at the time? Weren’t they the ones who obviously loved their work and you as a result? And weren’t they the ones who almost always seemed to do the right things for the right reasons, the right way? Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have most…practical wisdom. There is no substitute for it.

It’s no secret why districts like Scarsdale attract and usually get the best teachers who stay, while urban districts like New York City schools don’t. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, when I started in 1970, the opposite may have been true. Many excellent teachers left New York City because they saw the writing on the wall. The pay scales became far better in the suburbs. Parental involvement is far more positive. Socioeconomic factors that improve student scores are clearly evident. The level of professional treatment, although varied by district, was better than in New York City. Yet, the same old bugaboo persists.

I recently had a conversation with someone who strongly believed and argued, “Lower student scores are produced by students with poor teachers, and higher student scores are produced by students with good teachers.” I simply asked her one question. “Did I become a better teacher when I changed jobs from a Bronx high school with poorer test results to Scarsdale High School?” She was clearly stumped, but refused to change her mind.