When I first started my teacher preparation program in Detroit more than 15 years ago, classes were stocked full of young people eager to serve their communities. In our multicultural teaching course, I could barely find a seat as my classmates and I scrambled to push forward in our coursework and get into the classroom. Today, we are at a much different point in the training and retention of teachers across the United States.
Let us not forget that as of writing this article, the COVID-19 pandemic is still happening. The juncture of its existence is unclear, but it is still here. The past two years have not been kind to teachers. Many have worked in some hybrid capacity, with masks, behind plexiglass walls, and in communities fraught with the politicization of vaccinations. I have many (former) teacher friends who have both retired and chosen a new profession. These are not the 1-2 year-in young people who are just out of college and figuring out their education path. They are not in the first 5 year block of teachers in which we know teacher burnout and attrition is strong. Some of these individuals were in the industry for 25+ years, or 10+ years with plenty more to give to students.
Amidst the pandemic, our systems were exposed. Mechanisms for supporting teachers, for helping them navigate the requirements of their districts, their states, and their families came under scrutiny. Many collapsed and teachers burned out (are burning out!) in record numbers. This is causing a right-now problem for districts and states across the country. Substitute pools are especially hard hit, as many of these individuals have been hired to take on full-time positions. Great for them, unfortunate for our waning numbers of substitutes, who are critical members of teaching communities.
Yet, the problem that we are facing right now is solvable. The most significant challenge lies in the next half decade. With the volume of departing teachers has also come lackluster enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Additionally, general lack of interest in teaching has become the norm for young people. These trends are compounded by many recent grads and potential teacher prospects seeing the challenges teachers are facing and saying (with guttural conviction): “No. Thanks.”
So, what are our next steps? How do we encourage, train, hire, and retain teachers, a workforce group that we know is vital to our community? More importantly: How do we amplify this issue to a now problem so when we encounter a more striking shortage in 5 years, we will have already started a solution? Here are some of my not entirely fully conceptualized solutions:
Pay student teachers. Why are we still relying on a semester to a year of unpaid work as part of our preparation programs?
Make it much easier for teachers to have their student loans forgiven. Streamline the public service and teacher loan forgiveness programs, especially because so many teachers are required to earn a Master's degree.
Publicly and outwardly uplift the teaching profession on the national, state, and local levels. Enough said.
Convene a national and/or regional think tank to discuss ways to alleviate teacher stress and promote wellbeing.
Finally, I think it’s imperative that we have a conversation around students, behavior, and expectations in classrooms. These have to be local, and we have to prepare our principals, superintendents, and teachers to have them. This needs to be supported with time, and specific requests to parents to get involved. Sure, these processes might not be viewed by many as “learning”, but they are important to the institution of the American school. Expectations, belonging, and holistic support are critical to developing learning spaces for young people. We need to get into these conversations to better support our teachers, help them feel like they have a voice in our schools, and (hopefully) stave off the great-teacher-resignation for a bit longer.
Have thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them. Send me over an email, and let’s chat.
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Thanks for reading.