Who has the tougher job–teachers or lawyers?
Last month I argued that people’s unwillingness to pay higher taxes is the main reason why teachers will never make as much money as lawyers. Many readers disagreed, arguing that it’s due to the amount and difficulty of work that lawyers do. Who’s right? Well, as a former teacher who spent three years in two very challenging schools, I’m a little biased, and I know about lawyering only from reading about it or talking to friends who are in the field. So I’ll start this debate with some comments that readers posted and e-mailed to me regarding teacher vs. lawyer salary:
Teachers often get the summer off. Teachers work school hours. Typically, this may be 8-3. Lawyers work lawyer hours. This is a much, much longer day. Teachers have job security. Ever heard of a lawyer with tenure?”
Lawyers get paid more because no one wants to be a lawyer. Being a teacher is awesome. What other job gives you a 3-month vacation every year?”
Teaching is not intellectually difficult. Part of why lawyers make so much more money is that the work is much more challenging to understand. I’m a lawyer and even I wouldn’t understand a lot of the complex business deals that take place, which is where people make the big money. Also, I think there is a larger percentage of attorneys that work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although some teachers do put in a lot of hours, I don’t think that, on the whole, they put in as much time, not to mention they only work 9-10 months out of the year.”
New lawyers at pricey firms tend to work 90 hour work weeks, at a minimum–even in the summer. I’ve been a new teacher and I know it takes a lot of work…but not that much work. I’ve also been to law school, and I’ll take teaching any day.”
If you’re a preK-12 teacher or a lawyer, please post a comment and let us know if you think your job is tougher than the other (give some details since most people reading have never done either job). I’m hoping there will be at least a few career-switchers who moved from lawyering to teaching, or some Teach For America folks who moved from teaching to lawyering, who can give us insight into both worlds like the person who left the final comment above.
My take is that being a teacher can be as tough as being a lawyer, if we think about toughness as being comprised of amount of work and difficulty of work.
The biggest problem in comparing the workload of teachers and lawyers is that teachers generally have a choice as to how much they want to work. Much of this is due to the incentive structure within which teachers work. Teachers are salaried, but in most places those salaries are based on 30-33 hours of work per week. In Chicago, for example, teachers have to punch in their social security numbers on an electronic keypad in the main office before 8am and again after 3pm to prove that they have worked the number of hours required by the union contract. This makes it clear to teachers that they are being paid only for those hours, so some teachers choose to punch in as late as possible and to punch out as early as possible. Most lawyers, on the other hand, are required to bill 2,000 or more hours per year, which sets an expectation of being at work at least 50 hours per week. Lawyers may win this part of the debate, but incentive structure is a big reason why.
(One notable outlier in education is the KIPP charter school network. Their teachers sign a ”Commitment to Excellence” form and give a copy to each student’s family. One of the commitments teachers make is: “I will arrive at school by 7:30 AM and remain at school until the job is done.” If you know a KIPP teacher, you know that they often are at school into the evening, and they take calls from students and parents on their cell phones until 10pm. Students are in school from 7:30-5:00 during the week, and also come in for half-day Saturdays and for 3 weeks of summer school. Teachers are expected to work more, and they are compensated for doing so.)
That said, a good teacher in a regular public school puts in a lot of hours beyond the 8-3 work day. Think, for example, of an English teacher who assigns a 2-page essay for homework. A good teacher might spend 10 minutes reading each student’s essay, editing with a red pen, providing thoughtful written feedback about the overall content, and determining a grade for the paper. Assuming that teacher has 125 students and all of them turn in the paper, that could mean 1250 minutes (21 hours) of grading for one assignment. If only 75 students turn in the assignment, that’s still over 12 hours of grading. And even if the teacher cut down the time to 6 minutes per paper, with 75 students that’s still over 7 hours of grading for a single homework assignment. When you add up all the things that good, commmitted teachers do outside of simply teaching in the classroom–thorough grading of assignments; creating lessons, assignments, and tests; calling parents and making home visits; tutoring students one-on-one; engaging in professional development (extra reading on one’s content matter, attending workshops or classes, etc.)–the amount of time spent working comes much closer to lawyers than one might think.
Difficulty of work is where the comparison becomes harder, because the type of work and work environment is so different in each field. For example, there is a physical element to teaching, which includes like re-arranging classroom furniture, breaking up fights, bending over/squatting down when answering kids’ questions, hauling textbooks and piles of papers around the school, and being on one’s feet and talking almost the entire day. A teacher is going to be physically tired by the time kids leave at 3pm. I don’t know if this is the case with lawyers, but I have never heard any of my lawyer friends tell me they were physically spent from their work at the end of the week.
There also is an emotional element to teaching. An important part of a teacher’s job is to build strong relationships with students, which means learning and caring about them. This takes quite a bit of emotional energy, whether one is an elementary school teacher with the same 25 students all day or a high school teacher who sees 125 different students throughout the day. Teachers constantly are on the lookout for signs of neglect and abuse and are required to report when they believe a child is not being cared for properly (which can lead to an angry parent coming to school to confront the teacher), and often are approached by students who are in various forms of trouble–everything from pregnancy to homelessness to home life issues to gang concerns–and are looking for guidance or help. It can be emotionally taxing to have knowledge of these issues and attempt to provide assistance to students. There is the added weight of knowing that if you are unable to help a student academically or with a personal issue, that student’s future may be pretty bleak. (For those of you who watched The Wire, think about Duquan “Dukie” Weems at the end of seasons 4 and 5.) There certainly are some lawyers whose work includes this kind of emotional component, but even they likely don’t come home each night with personal knowledge of the struggles of dozens and dozens of young people in whom they are personally invested.
Finally, there is an intellectual element to teaching. Teachers must know their subject matter, explain concepts to students, determine the best way to evaluate if students learned what was taught, and find ways to re-teach the material to students who didn’t grasp it the first time. I think people tend to look at the intellectual challenge of teaching from the wrong point of view. They may look at a kindergarten teacher and say, “Phonics is easy–it’s just sounds and letters. I know that.” But the hard part of teaching is not knowing the content for your grade level, it’s teaching it to the students. Phonics to a 5-year-old can be what calculus is to a college freshman. Similarly, long division isn’t hard to do when you’re an adult, but making it make sense to two dozen 8-year-olds who are seeing it for the first time can be extremely difficult. Lawyers may see things more through a content lens because the difficult part of their job is understanding the details of a particular case and learning/applying related case law. Teaching, however, should be viewed more through a process lens because the primary focus is transferring knowledge of content to students and helping them learn to apply it.
Also, the work of teaching has become more demanding since most of us were K-12 students, largely because of No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement. When I was a student, the teacher’s job was to teach the material; today, a teacher’s job is to ensure that students have learned the material. (Some teachers may have embraced this long ago, but until recently it was not necessarily a required part of the job. Twenty years ago, if a student failed, it was the student’s fault. Today, it is the teacher’s/school’s fault.) Given how many different skill levels, interest levels, and personalities are present in a classroom, this is incredibly challenging work. (Reaching students with different skill levels in the same classroom–i.e., differentiating instruction–is hands-down the hardest aspect of teaching.) Figuring out how to motivate, explain something to, or interest just one student can be difficult. Multiply that by 25, or by 125, and it becomes an overwhelming task. Lawyers obviously deal with complex situations and material every day that most teachers would not understand. However, teaching is intellectually rigorous as well, just in a different way.
That’s where I stand in this debate. How about you?