Opinion: Keep the flowers and give teachers resources and power

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

We are in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, when students arrive at school clutching spring bouquets of tulips, lilies and irises for their favorite educators and PTAs set up breakfast buffets with homemade muffins and banana bread.

Are fresh flowers and bakery treats enough to allay the growing disillusionment with the teaching profession?

That disenchantment has emerged in multiple national surveys, including the sixth national “Voices From the Classroom” survey released recently by Educators for Excellence. The responses from teachers suggest a profession in crisis with growing concerns over their own futures and those of vulnerable students.

“Two-thirds of teachers are reporting that their schools are not meeting the needs of their students, especially their students who are struggling the most,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, in a recent briefing that featured advocates and educators from around the country.

Also known as E4E, the teacher-led advocacy group surveyed a nationally representative sample of teachers in January and February of this year.

“Teachers are telling us that our system is failing students of color, students who are not native speakers of English and student with disabilities,” said Stone. “And, maybe most alarming in this data, only 22% of teachers believe their school is meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ students, reflective of the consistently hostile environment that many of these students are being forced to learn in.”

Among the most sobering data points in the survey, only 14% of teachers would recommend the profession to others. Other recent surveys have also pointed to the dwindling appeal of the classroom.

A 2022 survey of U.S. households by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found only 18% of respondents would be apt to encourage their child or another younger person to become a K-12 teacher.

Additionally, In a 2022 survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, 31% of respondents reported it would be unlikely that they’d remain in education for another five years.

“American education can never be the great equalizer that we hope it will become if the backbone of the system, our teachers, are so unhappy they wouldn’t encourage their own children, their neighbors’ children, their friends or anyone else to follow in their footsteps,” said Stone.

E4E survey respondents believe in accountability and assessments but say there is a disconnect between the teachers delivering the content in the classroom and the people making the tests, said E4E member Cory Cain, dean of instruction at a Chicago charter school. “The tests are being given to teachers and not created by them,” said Cain.

Nearly 9 out of 10 teachers in the E4E national survey say they juggle too many responsibilities, making it difficult to be effective and safeguard students. Teachers describe being charged with single-handedly overseeing three classes out on the playground during recess.

Pay and student debt remain sources of discontent. In the PAGE survey of Georgia educators, 75% of teachers who graduated from college in 2005 or later carry student loan debt, and more than 41% of them owe more than $40,000.

Chicago teacher Dee Nix said he recently heard from a former student about to graduate from Clark Atlanta University. The young woman told him she was torn between accepting a teaching job or a higher-paying position with a sports team. “I encouraged her to stay in the profession because it’s her passion and that’s what we need,” said Nix. “But I told her she may need a second job, especially if she is coming back home to Chicago to live.”

Another rising concern of teachers was the intrusion of politics in their classrooms. A fifth of teachers in the E4E survey — consistent with other recent findings — report they were told to limit conversations with students around politically sensitive issues, a result of the culture wars that have set up a beachhead in American classrooms.

“We can’t solve problems by creating a boogeyman, a fake boogeyman by the way, because you can’t tell the Rosa Parks story and pretend like race didn’t matter,” said Heather Harding of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, which promotes equitable, anti-racist programs, practices and policies. “You can’t talk about the progress of our country without talking about the things that we failed at.”

Among our country’s overlooked failures is not giving teachers the standing and salaries they deserve. A breakfast bar in the teachers’ lounge probably does raise their spirits; higher pay and greater respect would raise the odds they’ll be back in their classrooms next year.