A Quick Look at the Numbers
While I’m an education insider, I believe it is well known to the general population that there is a teacher shortage crisis in America and it is going to get worse. The numbers are staggering:
Half of the 3.4 million teachers in the US leave the profession after one year (15% in all schools; 20% in high poverty schools)
Every two years high needs schools lose 50% of their teachers (you can’t accountability and test your way out of that)
Approximately 50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years
Every US state currently has a teacher shortage in at least one area
Every state but two has a teacher shortage in special education
Worse yet, young people don’t want to become teachers. Recent studies indicate that enrollment in teacher education programs are down 35% since 2009, dropping from 691,000 to 451,000. That doesn’t account for the inevitable number of 18 year-olds who will change their majors or who are counseled out of programs because they are not strong candidates to teach.
What Research Tells Us About Teacher Attrition
In a recent study of American teachers, only 44% say they are satisfied with their jobs. According to a Learning Policy Institute study, the top reason teachers leave the profession is working conditions, which include support from administration, negative public perception of teachers, lack of autonomy, and minimal opportunities to collaborate. Over 25% of teachers who quit do so to pursue better opportunities in other fields, which generally pay 20% more than schools for new professionals and 30% more for mid-career professionals. Combine that with crushing student loan debts and it’s understandable why the reality of money can be a problem, but interestingly, money generally is not the primary motivator for teachers quitting.
Why I Quit – A Letter from My Younger Self
I am one of those statistics who left the teaching profession, leaving for another opportunity at my current university to teach future educators. I didn’t do it for the money; that was never the reason I taught and it usually isn’t for most teachers. I didn't do it because of the long hours I worked grading paper and writing engaging, meaningful curriculum for my classes. I certainly never quit because of the kids. Despite the popular narrative of the tough kids in highly-impacted schools, if asked what was the best part of the nearly 11 years I spent in those buildings, I would say, "The kids." To the contrary, they are what kept me going when I was down.
In writing this, I actually struggled to remember why I left. So I went back to the letter I wrote in 2007 when I was applying to PhD programs (though I kept teaching while in graduate school, in 2007 I decided I wan't going to be a teacher in the long-term). What struck me is that my reasons are just like the reasons teachers are leaving 10 years later. I was dissatisfied with my working conditions, felt disempowered, was frustrated with government mandates made by politicians who didn’t understand education, and wanted to pursue a new opportunity to improve education in America. Nothing has really changed. So to give a little insight into those factors for quitting, I’ll unpack them a little.
Powerless & Voiceless
I felt like I have little to no power over educational decisions being made at any level – federal, state, or local. No one ever sought my or my colleagues opinions. Major decisions to change education such as the adoption of the Common Core Standards, had little to no teacher input. That rubs teachers the wrong way because we are highly educated in the field, well trained, and spend most of our waking hours actually in schools with actual students. Yet we have such little voice. Heck, that’s a big reason for this blog and the Tales from the Classroom project – to give a voice to those in schools. Policymakers are generally disconnected from what actually happens in schools and often clueless or indifferent on what makes for a good education. I wanted to join the conversation so I went to credential – to get a PhD in education with a focus on policy.
Of the more insulting things I ever experienced in my teaching career, being given a scripted curriculum may be the biggest. A scripted curriculum is exactly what it sounds like – you get a script to read to the kids, line-by-line, through an entire class period over an entire year. Some are so scripted that they will actually tell you when to look up at kids, what questions to ask, and what you should say as you are instructing. They are intended to teacher-proof a classroom so that in the event that a student gets a bad teacher, the script will even the playing field. There are so many issues with this I don’t know where to begin and it will be a future blog post, but there is literally zero studies that support this approach. It makes teaching dull, deprofessionalizes the teaching profession, bores the tears out of kids, and completely ignores the variations of different classroom and school contexts. It defies everything ever written about good teaching and learning. It’s so absurd that I can hardly find words to express the absurdity.
“Reformers” are Hurting Public Education
By now most Americans are familiar with ideas like “school choice,” “vouchers,” “for-profit charters,” and programs like “Teach for America.” While many of the ideas may have originated from an honest place desiring the betterment of education for kids (though that is most definitely debatable), I am telling you as someone from inside the classroom that educational reformers are hurting the educations of kids in public schools across the country. The insistence from reformers and politicians to evaluate schools based on standardized test scores is leading to skill-and-drill lessons, focus on low-level processing, minimizing important 21st century skills, while adding mountains of unnecessary paperwork for teachers and administrators. There is an underlying narrative for the reformer that teachers aren’t very good, most schools stink, and that education is a commodity. I’ll write much more about this in the future, but suffice it to say, these views have changed how teachers teach and the educational experience of kids for the worse. The reality of most reformers is that they have an agenda and that agenda, in my opinion and experience, is rarely pure (see Mercedes Schneider’s tell all book for more insight on the topic).
Worse yet, many have championed programs like Teach for America (TFA) and other “alternative” forms of teacher preparation. These programs recruit people from other professions, provide a few weeks worth of training, and then unleash their participants (who are woefully underprepared) into classrooms across the nation, usually in the ones who need the best teachers. The mere assumption that one only needs a couple weeks to learn how to be a teacher is inherently insulting and ridiculous at the same time. There are a number of ulterior motivations behind programs like TFA that I’ll save for a future blog post, but they are often anti-public school teacher, anti-professionalization of the teaching profession, anti-union, and pro-profit for the companies offering these programs. As I watched programs like these pick up steam across the US, it seemed clear to me that most people think teaching is something anyone can do and is not much of an art or a science (it’s both). Those who can’t, teach right?
The Dominant Narrative About Teachers
I know I’m likely more conscious of the dominant narrative about teachers than most because it’s my profession, but suffice it to say that when looking at media headlines, television news stories, or political rhetoric, the narrative is not positive. Seeing stories espousing that teachers are lazy, entitled, and overpaid have not been uncommon during my career. The “unions just protect bad teachers” story is another that regularly resurfaces. Concurrently, I’ve often heard colleagues point out that just about the only time we hear about a teacher on the local or national television news, it is for doing something nefarious, which only reinforces this negative narrative.
While the media certainly is no friend to teachers in the way they cover them, nothing can even begin to approach the vitriol one might find in political rhetoric. This negative rhetoric from politicians is hardly new. In Dana Goldstein’s book The Teacher Wars, she traces negative political rhetoric back to the early 1800s in America, with reformers/politicians railing against teachers as lazy and even stupid. This type of rhetoric has persisted. Look at every piece of legislation aimed at trying to fix the "bad schools" in America over just the last 30 years and you can see the negative teacher rhetoric (see A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Every Student Succeeds). Please note that this has been the one nonpartisan issue in education – Democrats and Republicans alike have contributed to this negative rhetoric. After a while, people don’t want to hear from their leaders that they are bad at their job, lazy, not very intelligent, etc. I sure didn’t. This reality leads many to quit the profession, seeking greener pastures where they can get paid better and gain a higher social standing in industries like business. While one of my goals in quitting was to change this negative narrative, I am regularly struck by how differently people react to me when I tell them I am a professor than they did when I told them I was a teacher. That just shouldn’t be.
So What Can We Do About It?
We have to change the narrative about how we talk about teachers – not because we don’t want to hurt their feelings, but because it is actually hurting our kids and ultimately our future as a nation. We can do that by altering the way we talk about our educators with others. We can challenge the negative stories we read or hear about how teachers are bad, lazy, etc. We can enact policies like those in everyone’s favorite paragon for education Finland, where future teachers have their college tuitions paid for so that they can serve as teachers. We can continue to improve how we train our teachers by doing things like building better partnerships with schools and the cooperating teachers who help train them. We can definitely pay teachers better. Sure, no one goes into teaching to get rich, but when there are teachers who are classified as working poor in our nation (I'm looking at you Oklahoma), that is a serious issue. How could we possibly recruit the best and brightest to the profession if, in this capitalist society, we don’t financially incentivize them to do so? The media might help in giving coverage to the thousands of positive stories that unfold in our classrooms everyday. Do we have to only put a teacher on TV when they are accused of molesting a child? Certainly that is news, but when those are the only stories people see, it changes the way we view the profession. How could it not?
I know we can do better. Yes, there are bad teachers out there just as there are bad accountants, bad politicians, bad public relations people, and so on. However, in this capitalist society, teachers made a conscious choice to serve our youth and our nation by foregoing an opportunity to reach the upper tier of economic prosperity. To me, that says something about the kinds of people who are shaping our children’s lives each day. Let’s not demonize these people and not only drive the good ones out of the classroom, but also disincentivizing future outstanding teachers from ever entering a classroom. Our children deserve nothing less than the best – let’s give it to them.