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March 7, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Teachers vs Doctors: The Disparity in Treatment & Perception

Both doctors and teachers serve a vital role in our society, but the outcomes of this belief are vastly different for each profession. Salient looks at the disparity in education, regulation, salary, and societal expectations.

Let’s face it: teachers’ training is often negligible. The standard training for a teacher in New Zealand is a Bachelor’s degree, and a one-year Graduate Diploma on top of that. The New Zealand Graduate School of Education, for example, requires a BA minimum for entry, and provides a ‘nominal’ study length of 12 months, with around two-thirds of that time spent teaching in a classroom.

So, little Jimmy graduates in 2014 and begins his first teaching job in 2015, provisionally registered as a teacher until 2018. Jimmy is qualified to teach any subject he received 12 points for at University. So, Jimmy’s BA/BSci major is likely to be the subject he can teach at high school level, while he would still teach every subject at primary school. Teachers are re-registered every three years, with any other monitoring conducted by the school, usually on an annual basis.

Were Jimmy aiming to become a doctor, beginning study in 2011, his study would end six years later in 2016, and he’d spend 2017 working under full supervision before he became a registered doctor. For doctors, roughly 50 per cent of each is spent shadowing qualified professionals in hospitals and clinics. Once he becomes a fully qualified doctor, Jimmy would be allowed to work as a general practitioner (GP). It would take him a further four or five years of on-the-job training to specialise in a field such as oncology, plastic surgery, pediatrics. If Jimmy has a clear idea of where he wants to go in medicine, he will probably be qualified to work in that area in 2022—11 years after beginning his study. Doctors are also required to hold an Annual Practice Certificate, which is only granted if the doctor continues training and updating their skills.

Both doctors and teachers are considered to hold a vital role in society. So how is it that one is given more weight than the other?

Studies show that a teacher’s attitude directly and heavily affects their student’s performance in all subjects. Louise, a teacher of Year 3 (seven-year-old) students, notes that “you have to have so many resources on hand, and so many activities on a daily basis, [that] there’s no chance to change it up. I teach the same things in the same order every year. You’d think new students would keep it interesting [but] the same personalities [do the] same things every year.”

Inversely, doctors have a minor educational capacity: they are expected to fix bodies that are generally the product of mistreatment and ill-education, and are invariably not held to be responsible for results they did not directly provide. A study in America showed that 25 per cent of obese people were never told by their GP—the doctor they pay to help them maintain a good standard of health—that they were overweight.

Closer to home, in September 2007, a well-known Wellington orthopedic surgeon performed a double hip transplant which did not provide ideal results, and the patient contracted a superbug. The patient sued; the surgeon dropped his personal fees; and, although the superbug infected the patient at Wakefield Hospital, as it was not as a result of the surgery, the patient was left to foot a hefty post-operation bill and ongoing medical problems. That’s right: neither the hospital, nor the surgeon were held liable for the post-operative environment, and the continuing hip problems of the patient were largely put down to the patient wanting both hips operated on at once.

While an extreme case, it illustrates the split in perception of liability in the public’s eyes. The expert surgeon acted on the wishes of the patient, knowing the likely result, but did not accept responsibility for his own surgery. What, then, is a doctor responsible for? If they remove every trace of a cancerous mole but the cancer has already spread, is it their fault?

Paradoxically, a teacher is responsible for holistic results. Teachers are measured on how they interact in the classroom, because their manner directly affects student’s willingness to learn, happiness in the classroom, and future success in learning. Teachers are measured on a student’s direct results—that is, how well their students grasp the subject they have been taught. Directly and annually, another teacher from the same school sits in on classes and analyses a teacher’s personality, so school politics play a part in the reported skill of a teacher.

Possibly the most emotionally torturous judgement, however, comes from the beady eyes of 30 children’s parents. Notes Louise, as a private school teacher, “Just once I would like to go to the supermarket without being pinned down by a parent in an aisle asking why so-and-so didn’t get 10 out of 10 for spelling. It’s always my fault!”

And, should any results be called into question, the Ministry of Education teaching guidelines require that lessons help with diverse aspects of life in New Zealand, including culture, Te Reo, technological advances, future learning and equality—in every class. Yes, even in 6th form maths.

This same concept of hauora—one’s entire wellbeing—is also spilling over into medicine. While doctors are obviously expected to respect other aspects of their patient’s lives, cases where patients sue doctors for not helping them maintain an adequate level of health are on the rise. A case study was presented where an overweight diabetic smoker died of sudden cardiac arrest. The jury found for the plaintiff because the doctor wrote in the chart that he intended to refer the patient to a cardiologist, but then failed to do so—never mind that the doctor also told the patient repeatedly, over the course of four years, to stop smoking and to lose weight. The judgment was for $3.5 million (Prof. John Banzaf III, George Washington University).

Unfortunately, at the same time, attemptng to advise or educate patients on anything beyond their specific training is likely to land doctors with a formal complaint. The requirement still stands, without exception, that doctors know at least the ‘basics’ of physiology before specialising. All doctors—even heart surgeons—should be able to tell you the names of the bones in your knee, for example, and how your nervous system works. They are only expected to refer patients to a specialist if symptoms are beyond a basic quick fix.

It’s interesting, then, that the only requirement for teachers, beyond their chosen subject, is basic numeracy and literacy. A teacher is required by law to cater to every aspect of a student’s learning, including Treaty of Waitangi components, although they are only given a crash course in everything except the subject they teach. They are expected to respect cultural boundaries, although they are never taught where those boundaries may be. For example, in Early Childhood Education, many preschools cope with cultural requirements with overarching rules, such as banning all pork products, so teachers do not have to learn the ins and outs of Muslim/Jewish dietary restrictions (note: both are much more detailed than ‘do not eat pork’). It seems that doctors are required to learn much more than they practice, but teachers teach more than they are required to learn.

Teachers’ ability in the classroom does affect their reputation, and may affect their future employment if they change jobs, but firing a teacher is notoriously hard in New Zealand. Further, with staffing shortages, teaching is seen as an easy profession to get into for employment. So, while teachers are monitored relatively heavily by a range of people, these results affect their perception and perhaps future employment, but not their actual jobs. Perhaps this is why doctors are kept on a short leash in terms of accountability and regulation. Their patient numbers reduce immediately and possibly irreparably when they make mistakes with patient care, and many are consultants, who are paid by the number of patients they see per day.

Teachers’ salaries and wages are set by the government (with the exception of the private sector, although private schools’ salaries are comparable), and their pay increases with their time in the profession. Estimates of the length of teaching careers vary widely worldwide, but teaching graduates can be put into three camps: roughly 30 per cent of teaching graduates do not become primary or secondary teachers, while the remainder either leave teaching after five years, or 20+ (i.e., most leave early or continue until retirement). Evidence suggests that after around five years, a teacher has tired of their low pay rate remaining stable as their living expenses (for example, mortgages to pay off) increase.

Almost 60% of all teachers start on about $45,000 a year, with the maximum base salary going up to $68,980, which around 3% of teachers reach in the first five years of their career. In fact, only 8% of teachers in public schools have a base salary above $45,653 (while additional responsibilities generally bring more pay). Overtime is unpaid, with teachers clocking in an average 10 hours overtime a week, with some working up to 36 hours extra a week. On average, one-fifth of teachers working hours are unpaid but required to complete the job.

Most doctors, on the other hand, continue in the profession until at least retirement age, so assuming one begins training straight after high school at 18, they have 40 years of a salary beginning at a minimum of $60,000 and topping out at $230,000 (all before overtime, of course, which can increase income by $30k annually). The average salary of a doctor in New Zealand is between $128,000-$195,000. Once a doctor is registered (unregistered doctors receieve a wage as low as $30,000) a doctor’s average wage is around double that of the highest paid teachers, and triple that of the average teacher.

One may justify a large amount of this difference to training. We really are paying our doctors for the countless hours of study that brought them to the five minutes they take to glance and say, “that’s eczema,” while the policy on teachers wages is unrelated to their actual quality level of work.

Sometimes it feels as if all we hear from the teaching sector is how underpaid and under-appreciated teachers feel. Sometimes we forget that almost any other industry has a pay scale that increases meaningfully over one’s career, and offers reimbursement for going above and beyond the role. While the life of a doctor isn’t as sexy and exciting as House would have us believe, and it does involve years of hard work, any adequate comparison of the two professions must still end with two considerations. Firstly, how did you treat your teachers when you were at school? And secondly, how do you treat your doctor?

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Comments (9)

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  1. Libby says:

    Some really interesting questions raised.

  2. aw says:

    Agreed, some very interesting questions raised, and I appreciate the balanced view! I am one of that 30% that qualified as a teacher but did not pursue it, and some of the (many) reasons why I didn’t are throughtfully brought up here.

  3. Offal says:

    aw, be interested to hear exactly why you didn’t. Interesting if somewhat confusing article.

  4. aw says:

    @Offal This will be a long comment, so don’t say you weren’t warned! (Could be worse, I could have copypastaed mylast essay for the programme, which contained at one point something like “after careful consideration I have decided that I will not pursue teaching, and will look for work in a different area”, which when it was marked had the comment “hopefully you’ll change your mind about thins after you’ve been teaching for a while”. Which was an unsurprising insight into the fairytale-mindset and reading comprehension skills that the lecturers at Karori had.)

    I had a number of reasons, all of which had a bearing on each other. For one thing, I hated (and I mean hated) the graduate course. It was the first year it had run, and they did made an awful job (this can also be expanded upon, but the actual facts aren’t so relevant here as much as the conclusion), to the point where I hated the idea of teaching by the end of the course.

    It would have been okay if that were all, perhaps if I had taken some time away from study and looking for work I would have recovered from that and rediscovered my enjoyment for it. I was pretty burnt-out by then, having gone straight from high school to uni to graduate work – I was 21 when I finished the Dip. Teach, and the only break I’d taken was having one semester off in third year, which was still pretty stressful as I was temping during that time (didn’t have a degree at that point, of course. Stuffing envelopes at $18 an hour was sweet when I could get it though).

    I did love being in the classroom, and I had some fantastic students and associate teachers who I learnt a lot from, plus some real stand-out amazing moments. But there were other factors. For one thing, the bureaucracy of schools is an environment I hated. I won’t say which schools I taught at, but they were very opposite, one public one private, one co-ed one single-sex, though both pretty high-decile. But at both I dreaded the staff room. They were hotbeds of gossip and bad feeling, people with feuds and petty infighting that only a few colleagues seemed above. Maybe that is true of a lot of workplaces, or maybe I was just unlucky, but in conversations with my fellow student-teachers (best support group ever, all of those people were amazing), it seemed to be a common problem.

    This bureaucracy extended to a lot of the teaching, too. So many teachers I worked with were disenheartened, worn out by a system that didn’t value their work, or didn’t value their students, or required superhuman efforts from schools with no returning recognition or comepensation. In putting myself into that environment I don’t doubt for a second that I would have become depressed and burnt-outm even more so than I already was at the time.

    There were some practical considerations too. The teaching jobs in Wellington are pretty few and far between, though that changes depending on what subjects you specialise in (I did English, Classical Studies, and had a couple of Journalism classes). I was not willing to move far away, for my own reasons, and that it obviously going to limit very much what kind of teaching work I would be looking at. I don’t even drive, so going too far out would have been difficult, especially as so much time in your first years of teahcing is taken up by trying to learn how to teahc in every spare moment you’ve got.

    Additionally, the tertiary education I had, of top of the Diploma, meant that I actually had a lot of skills that I could use in a variety of workplaces. Although I was unemployed for about half a year after I finished (I won’t lie and say some of that time wasn’t spent simply wanting to sleep all the time and recover from it), I got an amazing job in central Wellington with good pay, good people, and good opportunities. And none of that rules out me teaching in the future if I really felt the calling.

    I think lastly it’s that – the calling. I believe very firmly, after my experiences, that good teachers, great teachers, are those ones that know in their hearts that this is for them. And I was never going to be any more that an okay teacher. That’s not good enough for me, I had too many teachers in my life that were that and who I really didn’t like to be around, as well as some examples of amazing teachers that I would never have lived up to. Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me, or maybe I might not be giving myself enough credit, but I felt that very strongly.

    So that, in part (yeah, there’s more resons. Money; wanting to have a social life; whether I would have hated the subjects I so loved after having to teach them; disliking the NCEA when I had to do it, let alone teach it; and to be honest, fear) is why I didn’t go into it.

    Told you it’d be long (and apologies for typos, no spellcheck in this browser!)

    -aw

  5. Ian Anderson says:

    Marginal point perhaps, but…

    “Inversely, doctors have a minor educational capacity: they are expected to fix bodies that are generally the product of mistreatment and ill-education”

    Are they? There’s a whole range of factors that lead to someone needing treatment, that’s a big claim to back up. The notion that people’s choices are the primary factor in health is often unhelpful, see “everything gives you cancer.”

    The point about holistic vs directed rings true, though.

  6. kat says:

    “Inversely, doctors have a minor educational capacity: they are expected to fix bodies that are generally the product of mistreatment and ill-education, and are invariably not held to be responsible for results they did not directly provide”

    Wow even such dedicated grammar couldn’t pull this sentence back no sense land.

    Bodies are generally the product of mistreatment… And that would a generalisation I’m sure you have done the research to back up.

  7. I would like to raise two points, firstly that you are total correct, in that the onus for educational outcomes that is unfairly and often unreasonably pushed onto teachers in our community needs examination. As a teacher you are expected to educate and inspire, hold intrest and motivation for often a large group of young people. Not only are you handed seemingly all of the resposibility for education from parents that need to participate and assist but society expects you to offer pasteral care and guidence on many other non-education aspects of life that no one else wants to take ownership of.

    I do however think that comparing teachers to doctors is like comparing apples and eggs. You run the risk of over simplifying the role, expectations and legislation surrounding each profession.

    Great conversation starter however!

  8. Zoe Reid says:

    @ Kat and Ian Anderson,

    Mostly this article is about societal perception- Ask most people “Would we need doctors if we all took care of ourselves?” and the response is, “generally, no.” People don’t visit doctors to learn how to live a normal, healthy life- they notice that something is wrong in their life, ie, they aren’t normal/healthy, and go to be ‘fixed.’ I do sit in the “everything gives you cancer” camp though and this angle would have been great to bring in, argh! (There was an article lately on the benefits of lung testing smokers to prove that smoking is damaging them, because large number of cancer patients still claim smoking played no part, too. Also interesting to bring up.)

    @ Teacherslounge, I couldn’t agree more. This was inspired by a few Huffington Post articles which exploited the huge differences to show how badly treated teachers in the USA are. If you’re interested, google them, great reading :)

  9. KP says:

    The anecdotal examples do not provide any rational discussion about the notion of “Teachers vs doctors”. Would it be relevant to flip the coin and use an anecdotal story about a teacher-student sexual relationship as a typical example of the direction teaching is heading?
    The lifestyles of the two professions are completely different. I’m not sure how many teachers do 15 hour shifts, 80 hour weeks, or carry an on call pager/mobile phone 24 hours/day. Additionally not many doctors have more than a week of vacation at Christmas time.
    Doctors may also incur the costs of equipment, rooms, practicing certificates, indemnity insurance, and compulsory continuing medical education. Not to mention medical student loans exceeding $100,000 in the current environment. As @ Teacherslounge states you may as well compare apples and eggs.
    “Inversely, doctors have a minor educational capacity” – this may have some relevance to specialists dealing with more advanced problems or end-stage disease but I don’t think it is the doctrine of the NZ College of GPs! Vaccinations, screening programs, smoking cessation, and green prescriptions are a significant part of the typical GPs day.
    Interestingly as a side issue parents often take students having major difficulties at school to their GP for review.
    The public’s trust in teachers and doctors is often similar in surveys but unfortunately job satisfaction is on the decline for both. However we are fortunate to live in a country where suitable candidates are free to chose either career pathway.

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