With half the state’s teachers fleeing the classroom five years into their careers, how can we restore the luster of teaching?

If the shine is off teaching, how can we restore the luster?

Many teachers responded to my call for suggestions on how to enhance the profession so we can draw more people to the field and keep them in the classroom.

Now, half the state’s teachers leave the profession within the first five years of employment. 

The responses from teachers fell into three major themes, pay, power and prestige.  You can read the first post with teacher comments on pay here.

Now, I am sharing comments that reflect the broad issue of prestige. Teachers offered a range of ideas for improving the status, image and conditions of teaching. Later, I will share teacher comments on power.

Here are some of them:

-I am an 8th grade teacher. I have one quick thought on a simple step to take to professionalize teaching. Most schools require teachers sign in and/or out. As I quit doing this awhile back and no one seems to notice, this is a practice that doesn't serve any purpose except to make teachers feel like hourly employees.

Another small step that has no cost attached to it, I hang my diplomas in my classroom. Seeing this, some of my peers have joined in. As educators, we should be emphasizing our higher education achievements.

-One key thing Georgia could do to professionalize teaching is to reduce class sizes in nonacademic classes. I am an elementary art teacher of 20 years. While I love what I do, “special’s teachers” are often thought of as a “planning period for academic teachers” or entertainment for students and not a respected subject to develop the whole child. 

State-mandated academic class sizes vary according to age. The state mandate for fine arts is a maximum of 33 students. However, my county has a waiver allowing 39 students per teacher in the fine arts classes. Just imagine a 45-minute class with 39 second graders painting with no paraprofessional support. 

Over the years, academic class sizes have fluctuated due to budgets. We all know the studies and validity to having smaller class sizes and, luckily for academic teachers, this number has been reduced again over the years. I don’t understand why this is not translated over to other classes such as art.

While elementary art teachers may not have the rigor of testing students and collecting data, we do try to build relations with our students and provide them with lessons that make connections to their academics, along with lifelong learning skills. It is a challenging yet rewarding career as we get to be part of and watch students develop from K-5th grade.

I could go on about all the benefits of art education and cross curricular lessons, but that is another subject. I just wish art students, art teachers and art were respected. This is an issue that weighs on me daily, and I feel I need to advocate for the students.

-While I am encouraged by the current state level attention to elevating the professional profile of teachers, I'm unsure of how this would look in terms of meaningful day-to-day change. I am honored and proud to teach for the City Schools of Decatur, where I do feel that I am treated as a professional by the parents and citizens of our highly educated little city. 

I do think, however, there is a lingering stigma toward educators, especially early childhood educators, that we're just babysitting. This has even come from a former parent of one of my colleagues.

This father was also a teacher, albeit in higher education. He sent his very ill first grader to school with the flu, telling the child to let the teacher know that he had to go teach his master's level education course and couldn't leave his own students without an instructor.

Instead, the professor/father chose to send his ill and contagious child to school to infect 24 classmates and numerous teachers. This exemplifies the depth of the lack of professionalism that we often garner, even from our higher education colleagues. Let’s all respect each other, parents, teachers, and private sector workers alike. We must support each other through our words but most importantly through real action.

-To answer the question posed, I believe we must do something different, maybe even something counterintuitive to elevate the teaching profession. At a time when more and more teachers are leaving, a time when it's becoming harder to fill positions, Georgia's -- and I would argue, America's -- teaching programs must become more selective, rigorous, and attractive to potential teachers to recruit the best and brightest and elevate the status of the teachers. 

I will never forget a story a professor told my school reform class on a fall day at Harvard in 2010. At one time, Brown University had a prestige problem to the point that students were turning Brown down for almost all other Ivy League schools. Brown did something radical. When students explained they were also applying (or had been accepted) to Harvard, Brown would automatically turn them down. All of a sudden, students were getting into other prestigious schools, but not Brown. It made everyone think, "Hey! Brown must have something Harvard doesn't, I'll go there instead!"

And, just like that, their problem was fixed. They just needed to create a better image of their university. 

I think teaching has a similar image problem. Our image and the way we are perceived is one of the few things we can control; we certainly can't fix the poverty of our students, the laws that are passed, lack of equitable funding, or the fact many of our schools today are more segregated than in the 1940s. While it's important those things are addressed, let's focus our energy on what is within our realm of influence, and that will directly impact how we are perceived by the public, including our lawmakers, taxpayers, students, and other stakeholders. 

How? 

We must tighten up and tidy up the gates to our profession, which are our university teaching programs that directly feed our schools. Having a "gate," so to speak, is one of the things that makes a profession just that. Lawyers have the bar, doctors have a license, and both have a rigorous process to get to those steps so that when doctors and lawyers pass through their big shiny profession gates, they’ve earned the respect of our society. In the equally vital profession of teaching, shouldn't our gate be just as nice, and shouldn't the people getting through be the best at what they do? 

Right now, it’s not difficult to obtain a teaching license, and, while top quality programs do exist, there are probably five not so great ones for every excellent one.

Make teacher ed programs more selective (ACT/SAT scores, maybe require some kind of practical tutoring job component while in high school, etc.) and offer major financial incentives if you can get into one of these programs. Some ideas for these incentives are free education, housing, and some kind of a paid stipend for actually getting into a classroom to student teach early in the college experience, and a bonus if you can stick with the profession for five years.

Now, in my 10th year of teaching, it does get easier in a lot of ways, and I think a lot more people would stick around if they knew there was a bonus coming. 

- While teachers do deserve more compensation, it is not the single most important factor for me. For me, more important factors would include a class size amendment. Class sizes are out of control, and teacher allotments are on the decline in some areas. Class size is an integral part of our industry’s best practices. 

It is impossible to meet the needs of 30 children, all at differing readiness levels, every day. Add into the mix the need for specialized instruction for special education students, and it’s guaranteed someone will leave the room without adequate mastery and opportunity for remediation.

Another important factor would include yet another industry standard — an appropriate percentage of special education students in a co-taught classroom environment. Best practice says special education students should be capped at 20 to 30 percent of the classroom population. Yet, daily I hear of classrooms with sometimes up to 50 percent special education population.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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