Cook: Congratulations. Teaching is now a blue-collar job.

Cook: Congratulations. Teaching is now a blue-collar job.

December 23rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Teaching in Hamilton County has become a blue-collar profession.

According to state data, a local teacher earns roughly $48,000 a year, which is similar to the median wage earned by many traditional blue-collar workers, such as brickmasons ($46,000) and electricians ($45,000) and pipelayers ($43,000).

Area boilermakers earn $66,000 on average each year, says a 2014 report from the Tennessee Department of Labor, which is more money than a veteran teacher with 25 years experience and a Ph.D. earns.

Carpenters earn $35,000, slightly less than a first-year teacher's salary.

It's also time to stop pretending that education is a white-collar job that's easy on the body. At the end of the day, many teachers on their feet all day go home exhausted. No, not like a steel worker (although their wages may be the same), but spent nonetheless.

Teachers are losing their autonomy, much like a laborer takes orders from his or her boss. A teach-to-the-test psychology is removing much of the freedom teachers should have to build and construct their own classrooms, just as a framer places the 2x4 studs not where he wants, but where the blueprint demands.

(But teachers aren't framers. They're more like engineers and architects.)

Society has long valued white-collar labor over blue-collar the show is called "Dirty Jobs" for a reason and treated each in different ways. We promote universities and four-year degrees not so they translate into jobs with grease and sweat and dirt, but so they don't.

Blue-collar labor has historically carried a scent of shame, which is, of course, unfair and wrong. (My own father an educator who comes from a blue-collar family taught me early on not to good-bad distinguish among types of labor, a lesson I helplessly relearn every time the car won't start, a heater breaks or pipes bust.)

As we continue to value teachers less and less cutting their benefits, neglecting their salaries, while placing more 25-kids-per-classroom demands on them we tear down the social scaffolding that has held teaching as a noble profession.

Nowadays, education seems part of the service industry.

"This scene is a clich of the struggling teacher, and it surfaces repeatedly in pop culture think of Walter White in 'Breaking Bad,' washing the wheels of a student's sports car after a full day teaching high school chemistry," writes Brittany Bronson.

In her recent New York Times essay, Bronson powerfully describes her two-part life as a professor by day and a waiter by night. She works both jobs to make ends meet, and has found they each contain traces of shame.

"A belief that society deems our work inferior, that we have settled on or chosen these paths because we do not have the skills necessary to acquire something better," she writes.

Bronson works in Vegas. By day, she teaches freshmen. By night, she waits tables at a chain restaurant. Guess which job has a bigger paycheck.

"My adjunct-teaching colleagues have large course loads and, mostly, graduate-level educations, but live just above the poverty line. In contrast, my part-time work in the Vegas service industry has produced three times more income than my university teaching," Bronson writes.

Her teaching-waitressing life is a good symbol, for teachers often have the same sensibilities as a waitress or servant, who are always in possession of a running to-do list to make sure things are as they should be. To teach is to serve, and to serve is to always be considering the needs of those around you.

It also means at least locally that some days, it's hard to make ends meet.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.


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