You can tell a lot about a place by the way it treats its teachers.
Yukonomist once met an elementary school teacher from a Catholic school in Wisconsin who apparently made $13,000 per year, no benefits. There is probably a connection between the attitude of Wisconsin school boards on the value of teachers and the fact that no one has ever heard of the Wisconsin Institute of Technology.
International education experts ascribe a big part of South Korea’s educational successes to the high esteem in which teachers are held by students and parents alike. “One should not even step on the shadow of one’s teachers” is a Korean proverb. Not many South Korean students take cellphone calls in class and they call their teachers the Korean form of “vous” rather than “dude.”
In fact, on Teacher Day, ex-students take carnations to former teachers.
The South Koreans, like the Japanese, also pay their teachers well.
In 2004, according to the OECD, South Korean teachers with 15 years of experience made 2.7 times the average GDP per capita. In the US it was 1.2, and in other wealthy countries it was 1.3.
There are also some disturbing aspects to South Korean education, with cram schools and extreme pressure on students to perform to get into university, but the respect part is nice.
Here in the Yukon, in the absence of recent data on attitudes towards teachers, we can at least look at pay. An arbitrator has just finalized a new wage deal between the government and the teachers’ union.
Teachers will get raises of two per cent, 2.25 per cent and 2.25 per cent over three years. Since the negotiations dragged on for months, the deal is actually retroactive to July 1, 2009. Since the inflation rate in the Yukon since mid-2009 has been less than 0.5 per cent, this represents a real increase of more than $1,000 for many teachers. Compared to the mass sackings and wage cuts in other parts of the world during the financial crisis, this is a tidy little raise. And from now until the deal ends in mid-2012, inflation may increase but the Bank of Canada is targeting a two per cent rate so the teachers should be able to tread water (at least) for the rest of their contract.
Even more important than the raises is the absolute level of pay. By 2012, starting teachers will earn about $63,000 and teachers with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience will earn about $98,000. That’s almost in the $100K club, made famous by legislation in Ontario requiring the publication of every government employee’s name if they make more than $100,000. And it’s more than 90 per cent of their students’ parents earn.
Of course, if you include the pension, health insurance, dental coverage and travel benefits they have already cracked the $100K barrier.
This is a South Korean-style recognition of the teacher, considering that the median Yukon worker pulls down about $35,000 per year according to the Yukon bureau of statistics.
Even the lowest-paid starting teacher is in the top one-third of Yukon earners. And Yukon pay compares well with BC, for example. Top teachers in Vancouver, who have to deal with the shocking cost of housing, earn only about $82,000.
It is important to pay well to attract good teachers. Besides the fact that you have to pay people generously to put up with our children all day long, lots of research shows that the skills of the teacher are the most important influence on children’s learning in school. And there are lots of other careers beckoning for young people, considering teaching as a career. The competition for teaching talent has increased dramatically in recent decades. In 1964, for example, of those young American women with top 10 per cent scores on the SAT, 20 per cent chose teaching. By 1992, it was down to 3.7 per cent.
Of course, pay isn’t everything. There is also good leadership providing a sense of mission and accomplishment, the enjoyment of the teaching challenge and the growing mastery of the profession, and working conditions.
If you can find a school that offers these things too, then teaching in the Yukon looks like an attractive profession. Young people should think about it, especially since in many jurisdictions around 30 per cent of teachers are within a decade of retiring.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.