How To Confront The Teacher Shortage - And Response (2)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Research shows educator shortages disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and students from rural communities. The US Department of Education points out that areas like special education, bilingual education, science, technology, engineering, math, career and technical education, and early childhood education positions are hard to fill. That is hardly news to those who work in public education.

Still, some want to dispute the need. I would invite those critics to crawl out from under the rock. Educators have many transferable skills that are valued across many industries. And teachers are taking advantage of their skills to move to higher-paying, less stressful jobs.

Some policymakers and stakeholders merely view teachers as highly paid babysitters, and their jobs interchangeable as widgets in a factory. That point was hit home when Tennessee Governor Bill Lee shared a stage with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn who demeaned teachers and Colleges of Education. Former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos famously said in a 2015 speech dismissed public education as a dead end.

Then you have a former educator and author Peter Greene refusing to call it a teacher shortage. He argues, “Call it an exodus, a slow-motion strike, or a wave of teachers responding to the old. If you don’t like it, then get out.” Regardless of what you want to call it, the teacher pipeline is broken. Greene does point out that “Every teacher knows a teacher who left the profession ahead of schedule or a promising prospective teacher who chose not to enter the field at all.” It must be pointed out that we are hiring underqualified candidates to fill some of these vacancies.

Lack of respect, inadequate administrative support, and the need for student discipline are frequently cited as reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession, often as much as low salaries and poor working conditions. To turn this around in Tennessee we need more education decisions that are parent, educator, and student-driven, not forced by political action committees, funded by out-of-state interests, with money that nobody is clear where the donations come from.

I had an opportunity to discuss the challenges facing school systems as the new year begins with Tennessee Representatives Mike Sparks and Mark White on WGNS Radio. Our state can only address this daunting challenge if policymakers at every level of government will support our public schools and stakeholders will support and engage in the ongoing work in our classrooms and Colleges of Education.

Policymakers often fail to connect the lack of parental engagement with a lack of resources in a school, along with mediocre school leadership and/or frequent changing of administration. This merely adds to the teacher's stress level. This is an area that we all agreed must be addressed. Other stressors include frivolous and unnecessary staff meetings, increased paperwork, state regulations, unclear board policies, augmented workload with special needs students and students who do not speak English, class size, multiplied discipline problems, lack of classroom materials, and, in some cases, 12–14-hour days 7 days a week work. You can understand why educators burn out.

For my part, I wanted to stress that our work in education creates a sense of purpose and meaning, unlike many other occupations. When society fails to recognize this effort and hard work with comments like “anybody can do it” it destroys the value and pride educators take in their profession. We must be honest that the loss of recognition and support of schools in the community leads to anxiety, anger, and burnout in the profession. It only takes so much criticism before educators abandon the profession, and others will not even consider it as a career choice. We have reached that tipping point.

How do you address these challenges? In our dialogue, we discussed several issues and solutions. Both Rep. Sparks and Rep. White serve on the education committee in the Tennessee General Assembly. White is the Chair of the Education Administration Committee.

Addressing both long-term issues and short-term fixes we concluded that bringing teachers into the discussion would be extremely beneficial, but teachers are reluctant to speak out for fear of retribution. Also, we need Colleges of Education to speak up on issues that impact them and undergraduate recruitment. Salary, benefits, work conditions, and respect for our educators must also be part of the discussion.

Chairman White discussed the idea of free education degrees and debt forgiveness, much like the Peace Corps in the 1960s so that bright young men and women would enter teaching in public schools. He called this idea Teaching Corps. We all agreed that this is an idea we must pursue, along with the Grow Your Own Program.

I also included a Troops to Teachers type program to assist veterans in becoming certified and employed as teachers in K-12 schools, as well as making better use of retired educators. We should allow retired educators to continue to teach for up to five years and draw their retirement and salary. This keeps excellent teachers in our schools longer, while our colleges of education build a stronger pipeline of future educators.

We need to keep our most effective educators in the classroom and public education. Our federal, state, and district policymakers must take this issue seriously. We are losing too many good educators, and it is time we address the issue.

JC Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

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Appreciate so many of the important observations by Dr Bowman about the status of public education.  But the elephant in the room question: why is education one area that has not seen 300 percent or better productivity gains?  E.g. study manufacturing, office work, retail, communications, etc.  Manufacturers that used to hire 10,000 workers are using 500. Offices are operating fine with many layers of workers replaced by technology; look at the far fewer workers in retail, etc.   

But education has obviously resisted efforts to use smarter technology, especially self-paced apps using AI. For ideas see the WSJ article, “Can Tech Boost Reading? Literacy Tools Come to Classrooms”.

To address Dr Bowman’s list of very disturbing problems, like morale and discipline, replace many of teachers with “success coaches” so the teachers can work with the tools to advance each and every student. Avoid the one-size-fits all classrooms, and individualize much of teaching with technology that both teaches fundamentals and “learns” the student.

Oh yes, credit to Dr Bowman for listing some potentially useful band-aids that should be tried, but please be scientific in implementing these ideas and study their effectiveness. 

Robert Dreyer, retired professor and hi-tech medical equipment designer

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Professor Dreyer, the industries you cite moving into high tech all work with adults and have advantages schools don’t have. Primary age children may be able to play complex computer games but that doesn’t always translate to knowledge in sync with high stakes testing.

Schools need tax money regulated by politicians to operate and maintain larger and larger buildings. Businesses operate in the free market and can regulate prices. They can operate with workers working at home.

Retail is using fewer workers but I often have to “explore the store” looking for someone to help me find something which isn’t there although the app says it is. I would argue that’s not a gain.

Quality control in manufacturing can assure inanimate product improvement you don’t get with human behavior in schools. If a worker is lazy or unproductive they lose their job. If a student is like that there’s literally dozens of programs schools have tried but if they don’t work, you can’t fire the student.

As for one size fits all classrooms, you’re right about that. Teachers warned that it was another of many of those trends coming from those who tried teaching and didn’t like it so they became “experts.” That’s why many systems are beefing up vocational programs and high tech can be used there quite effectively. Special Ed concerns are a different matter and will be debated for generations but not in this post.

Businesses can upgrade technology through issuance of new stock or selling off unproductive divisions. Schools can’t sell off the 12th grade or kindergarten although some politicians think they can.

If there was an easy solution, Americans would have found it given our propensity to discover and invent. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. Competing with nations who have multiple tracks in the educational process often creates a bad comparison where in America we take everybody. So is a comparison of schools to manufacturing a bad idea.

Modeling American schools after a factory is how we got the ordered rows, bells and lecture system American schools adopted for three quarters of the last century.

Technology can be a blessing or a curse in education. Textbooks will largely become a thing of the past but people will be needed to provide the hardware, service the chrome pads, keep the network running and get the power started when it goes off. Meanwhile teachers can’t be replaced like a retail worker forcing kids to go on an expedition in the building to find the one teacher who is working. With adolescents that won’t go well.

Ralph Miller

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