Merit Pay for Teachers from the Perspective of a First-Year Educator

I am 9 1/2 weeks into my first semester as a high school social studies teacher. I have two classes of U.S. Government students, mostly seniors with a healthy smattering of juniors, and four classes of World History sophomores.

Take one guess as to where 90% of my headaches come from…

My department chair came to chat with me last Friday during my conference period, wanting to see how I was settling into the job as a twentysomething newbie. We discussed many things, including the “paying your dues” process experienced by most new teachers.

We new teachers often begin “in the trenches” with the general-level classes of sophomores at a high school that has only sophomores, juniors, and seniors (the freshmen have their own school). Instead of beginning with 17- and 18-year-olds with numerous carrots and sticks to encourage good behavior and study habits, rookies begin with 15- and 16-year-olds who see college, or a real-world job, as a faraway, hazy, mystical possibility.

Not tangible enough to encourage good behavior or classroom performance.

Many of my sophomores may drop out soon, not bothering to complete their junior and senior years. While many of my teens are dedicated, motivated, and talented students, others rarely attend class. Some have not completed a single assignment.

Merit pay would base part of my salary on the performance of these students. Should other teachers, who perhaps lucked into teaching classes with higher-caliber students, receive more lucrative paychecks simply due to luck?

Teachers often cannot control which students they get and some students, for better or worse, are not motivated by academic pursuits regardless of the skill, dedication, or talent of the teacher. Merit pay, therefore, would likely only benefit those teachers who already taught students who, for whatever reason, were academically motivated.

To me, that is the most basic reason against the concept of merit pay. Why should my salary be based on student performance that is often unrelated to my work in the classroom? Too many of my students underperform simply because they attend school only sporadically.

The inherent unfairness in the merit pay system would only lead to increasing bitterness and lack of unity among campuses of teachers. Teachers would jockey with each other to have “high performers” transferred to their classes, or “low performers” transferred out.

New and inexperienced teachers would become likelier to have classes full of underperforming students who were dumped on them by teachers with greater clout with the administration.

The veteran Advanced Placement teacher continues to net a bonus-inflated salary while the rookie, saddled with underperformers forced upon him or her by experienced teachers, never has class test scores rise high enough for a salary boost.

I prefer the system as it is now: An honorable “take the good with the bad” where you get paid as a salaried professional, not a pay-for-grade mercenary who is primarily interested in good stats.

But check back with me in 5-10 years when I finally get some AP class “high performers”…hopefully I’ll still be noble enough to stick to my guns!

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