“The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.”
— Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Salary negotiation is unfamiliar territory for most educators. In most schools, salaries are pre-determined by the number of years worked, and generally speaking, there is little to no wiggle room. An education technology company is not your typical school, though, and so several times over the course of my three years in Silicon Valley, I had the chance build my negotiation skills, however unsuccessful I might have been.
It was my second year there, and given the high cost of living and the promises of being a “21st century knowledge worker,” I tried my hand at renegotiating my salary for the coming school year. After all, I had helped open several schools, contributed to thought leadership and branding, and made significant contributions to the tool development over the time I was there. It seemed only fair to attempt to close the pay gap between educators and engineers at the company–a pay gap I estimated to be between $20,000 and $30,000, that is, between the lowest paid engineers and highest paid educators.
“You know why engineers get paid more, right?” I was asked when trying to negotiate my salary.
I replied, knowing very well what I was going to be told: it had to do with market value and replicability. An engineer’s code was, after all, immediately replicable. If an engineer wrote successful code, it could be scaled out to the masses efficiently. This assigned more value to an engineer’s work, by those standards. It made their work more valuable than the work of an educator’s–at least in the eyes of those looking to turn a profit.
“Right,” they said back, after I’d shared what I thought to be the reasoning behind the wage gap. “Most of the work you do is one-off.”
A Teacher’s Work is Not ‘One-Off’
One-off. That was the word that was used to describe my work. And that was the word to rationalize the degree to which my work was valued less than the work of an engineer’s.
In case it’s not entirely clear, I want to define specifically what was meant by one-off. What I do (and have done for almost a decade now) cannot be immediately copied, pasted, and scaled out to the masses. This much is true. And from the perspective of technology executives, this meant it was deserving of the distinction one-off: only happening once, not repeated. It meant that it was worthy of a compensation gap of tens of thousands of dollars, in a city where the cost of living was astronomically high, making the typical market value of a teacher’s salary incredibly hard to live on.
I need not convey to any teachers why this was so offensive. The very notion of our work being one-off undermines the way that we, educators, value our own work. Our work is anything but one-off. Sure, it cannot not be captured, controlled, or replicated in the way an engineer’s code is so tangibly harnessed; instead, our code is replicated in a different way. It is sown into the seeds of our sentences, watered by every word of encouragement, nurtured through relationship-building and compassionate exchanges. It is passed on subconsciously, through ripple effects, and in the interactions that our reality.
To say that the work the educators do is one-off–and as a result, of less value–was not only disrespectful: it was downright wrong. I thought that working for a company that valued personalized learning would also mean working for a company would value people. The educators were the faces of the company, the ones who made the experience of learning utterly personal, the ones whose code would compound over time and truly help individual children reach their full potential.
The Oppressed Become the Oppressors
As angering as it was, I can’t even blame the individual that said that to me. We are all part of this society, and so many of us have stood by complacently, complicit in the systemic oppression of educators and education. We are all part of a society that values self-interest and inequity in the name of “rugged individualism” and capitalism. These ideals necessitate the oppression of large groups to provide benefit to some.
I can say this with confidence because I was part of the problem. I, too, was motivated by the potential big pay-off that I thought might come from working for a technology start-up. I thought that perhaps I could be one of the educators that broke the mold and showed the world that somewhere, someone valued my work enough to pay me equitably. I thought I could make some money off the education system, too.
As you can imagine, it was quite a sobering awakening to simultaneously see myself as both the oppressed and the oppressor in this situation–to see myself as both part of the problem, but also as one who was slighted (again) by the system.
It’s the fear that does it to us. I know it was fear for me–the fear of not having enough, of not doing enough, of not being enough. This fear, fueled by scarcity, makes us want to stand over others, to both covertly and overtly tell them that they’re worth less than us, to devalue them with our words and our resources. Sadly, it’s human nature to want power over others, and this lethal mix of education and capitalism only exacerbates this sad reality. It’s happening now more than ever in education, as business begins to strengthen its grasp on the education system’s already scarce budget.
We Need to Change What We Value
The reality is dire and solidifies the notion that our economy, in its current form, is not set up for educators to succeed. Educators cannot–and probably never will–produce profits in the short-term for a company or organization. The profits we produce are long-term in nature, and as a result, they are undesirable to an economy that prioritizes instant gratification over long-term health and prosperity.
Despite the fact that we understand the benefits of gradual, long-term investment, our society still oppresses educators and the education system. In the case of Silicon Valley and EdTech, they oppress to maximize profits, all at the expense of educators, learners, and meaningful learning.
What they don’t realize is that this quest for wealth and power is suffocating an institution intended to strengthen our democracy. The systemic oppression and exploitation of educators and education is crippling the delicate human condition of learning. What’s even worse is that they’re capitalizing on its destruction, all for the benefit of few who are not worthy of education’s immense power. It’s extinguishing the newly burning passions of young children who deserve an education filled with rich experiences—not an inundation of technology-driven lessons, so euphemistically labeled as personalized learning.
In an era where we witness, day after day, power and wealth increasingly concentrated into the hands of a greedy, irresponsible few, we must find the courage to question and speak truth to power. Because when learners and learning are threatened, the very foundation of our democracy is threatened. And we can’t afford to take any more risks with our democracy’s health and safety.
After all, how can we actualize a vision for democratic education, when the very system that supports it depends on the systemic oppression of many? How can we liberate educators, students, and by proxy, learning, when it’s ever more increasingly subject to being diluted by venture capitalism? How can we make learning personal when the code in a computer is assigned more value than the code we humans write each day through our words and our relationships?