Fear and Loathing in the American Classroom: Debunking the the Myth of the Teacher Shortage

Exodus 5: 10-11 — “And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. 
Go ye, get your straw where ye can find it: yet not aught of your work shall be diminished.

Human willingness to endure suffering has limits. When subjected to an unreasonable workload, those who labor will eventually seek any alternative to ceaseless toil. The burden of national expectations — the edict to leave no child behind, for example — have been placed squarely on the shoulder of educators with predictable results. Educators pose the question, “Where are the increased human and material resources to meet this vastly expanded goal for our Public Schools?” Our society has mostly responded with Exodus 5: 11, see above

Recently, the media have shared the concerns of school systems struggling to recruit educators into their classrooms. Nationwide, teacher preparation programs also report insufficient enrollment to furnish the replacements for the looming wave of baby-boomer retirements. Do the math: educators are leaving the profession faster than we can prepare their replacements. 

These stories are becoming a rite of autumn as schools open, and the trend is no longer sustainable. 

Late each spring, thousands-upon-thousands of teachers — most of whom are effective practitioners in the classroom — pack up their materials one last time, raise the white flag of surrender and tender letters of resignation. The issue is most apparent in regions with high concentrations of poverty; it is not uncommon for such schools to experience a complete turnover of the faculty every few years. Dr. Richard Ingersoll established long ago that in excess of 50% of teachers do not make it to a sixth year in the classroom.

It is true that not all teachers leave the profession. A tiny portion will receive promotions. A larger group will migrate to greener educational pastures. Too many, however, succumb to the despair of unwieldy demands in the workplace and simply find another line of work. Recently, during an impromptu exit interview, an about-to-be-former educator responded tearfully when asked what she would do next. “Anything else!”  She doubled her salary and works in the IT industry, now.

What is it like to teach in 2015? With but the rarest of exceptions, the teaching profession is characterized by lack of professional autonomy in addressing the educational needs of children, excessive intrusions on personal time, archaic resources, unreasonable caseloads, inadequate facilities and, to top it all off, vilification by the punditry and the political class.

Working conditions are so generally abhorrent that slightly more than 9% of the nation’s teaching force of 4.5 million fails to survive even the first year in public education. Every single year, several hundred thousand teachers simply walk away from a teaching credential that required several years to obtain. Across this thirty year career, a surfeit of educators has only existed during severe economic downturns when other work was scarce. 

So, the shortage of teachers does not really exist. The nearly constant churn in the teaching force suggests, instead, the more intractable problem of economically-challenged school systems lacking the capacity to place committed educators in a position to effect positive change in the lives of children. Change that dynamic and a horde of former educators stands ready to return to the classroom. 

The National Center on Teacher Quality has proposed five ways that school districts might stem the constant hemorrhaging of potential career teachers. NCTQ proposes the creation of improved career pathways, addressing inequities in teacher placements, embracing teacher-led professional development, supplying more job-imbedded time for collaboration and untethering teacher evaluation from tests. The impediments? Cost implications abound.

Unless the community is content to stifle the aspirations of educators and squander the dreams of children, the focus must soon shift attention away from annual recruitment of novices and over to the retention of more experienced, highly effective educators. Making every classroom a manageable workplace must become the national priority. Our children deserve nothing less.

The annual exodus of teachers from the profession should result in the sounding of klaxons across this nation because it places the next generation of children at risk. Turnover, however, is the only logical outcome of abrogated contracts, classroom overcrowding, obsolete materials, lack of support and leaking roofs. All who abandon the vocation of shaping young minds are declaring forthrightly that they simply refuse to gather their own proverbial straw.

Further Reading: neaToday…


[This is a much revised version of a commentary that appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel on November 8, 2015.]

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