Just because it isn’t anyone’s fault, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention.
If you are a parent, the teacher exodus has probably already affected you in obvious ways. I know in my district there are several schools scrambling to fill vacant teacher positions with qualified teachers. They are doing the very best they can. Their inability to get a qualified teacher to teach midyear is not their fault.
But it affects all the families of those students. It affects the other teachers who must work extra hours to plan for those classes, grade for those classes, cover those classes. In turn, those teachers are becoming burnt out and feel ineffective. They may quit. Or they may just not be as good a teacher for their contracted classes. Forget about the substitute teacher crisis. That’s such a huge issue, there isn’t enough space to discuss it here. It needs to be its own article. That too, is no one’s fault.
If you haven’t noticed teachers are leaving the classroom in record numbers because it hasn’t hit your school yet, brace yourself. Just as Georgia’s public-school enrollment is starting to go up again, teachers are leaving the classroom in record numbers.
A recent RAND survey estimates “one in four” are thinking of quitting. While in the past these numbers have been dismissed, educational leadership must pay attention as it is leading to action on behalf of teachers. According to a September Brookings Institute survey: “On average, teachers reported that around 40% of their colleagues that considered leaving because of COVID-19 ended up leaving.” If one in four have considered leaving and 40% of those actually follow through, we are in trouble.
Who do we blame?
No one. Seriously. No one. This is a problem that has been brewing long before teaching through a 1.5-year pandemic. The death-by-a-thousand-papercuts list has been compiling for as long as I can remember: classes that are too large, administration that doesn’t support them, over-fixation on standardized testing and scripted curriculum, feeling as though educators have no power over decisions made at the district, state, and national level. But if those reasons have been in place for quite some time, why now? Why are we facing a crisis?
It’s the perfect storm (because of course it is).
A big group of baby boomer teachers is retiring, some on time, some early. Fewer people are going into education because it is seen as less of a profession and more of “calling,” with little pay. There is a movement called “The Great Resignation” that is speaking directly to the exploited feeling many teachers have.
COVID-19 strained teachers and schools — some to the breaking point. There is a new industry evolving around “helping teachers get out of the classroom.” Classroom behavior has become problematic as many students were not socialized for a year, and if parent(s) worked fulltime during the pandemic, there are likely issues with not being on grade-level for instruction.
Again — this is no one’s fault. That may be why it is so hard for us as a society to deal with it. We cannot point to one thing or one person and shout “aha” triumphantly.
Should we have done other things along the way? Certainly. But what do we do now? How does a district or state or nation show teachers they are valued when there’s not enough money or time or resources to fix this?
I have a few suggestions. None of these include increasing teacher pay. Not because it shouldn’t be done, but because it leads to a different debate. I’d like to focus on other things that can be done separate from that conversation. These are suggestions for district, state, and national education leaders.
1. Teachers should be given a seat on the school board and rotate out every two years. They should get a regular salary but only teach two classes or a half of an instructional day. This teacher should be from a different level every year: elementary, middle, high.
2. Sick days should be able to either be cashed out at retirement (for money) or donated to particular people in your school or community — or both. I would donate at least one sick day a month to a new teacher or mommy or daddy. Sick banks exist, but they are impersonal.
3. One standardized test requirement for every two grade levels. No more than that. No more weekly, monthly, daily standardized testing and data collection — which by default leads to scripted curriculum). Also, no more scripted curriculum. Teachers are overwhelmed with data collection. Teachers feel disenfranchised by content they did not create. I have more data collection requirements this year than I ever have before. It is not why I get up in the morning to do this very difficult job every day.
4. No more furlough days. Want to cut teacher salary for the budget shortfall? Then call it what it is: a pay cut. Own. Your. Decision. Don’t hide it behind “furlough.”
5. Pay substitute teachers more. Now. If not, pay teachers to cover classes during their planning or lunch.
6. This will be the most controversial one, but here goes: Require volunteer hours from parents. Eight hours a semester doing something in your kids’ school. Got five kids? You still only have to do eight hours, but everyone does hours. You send your child to a building for weeks on end for the majority of the year. Part of the biggest problems of education could be solved if people went into their school buildings and saw how hard everyone is working to help kids feel safe and successful. Community is missing in our schools. We need to bring it back. I’m fully aware that this is an assumption of privilege. You’re right. Parents work. Parents have obligations. One full day of volunteering from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. will knock it out. It is worth it. Your kids are worth it.
7. No required professional development for two years. Teachers learned enough from March 2020 to now.
8. Cancel teacher student-loan debt.
9. No more adopting new curriculum, assessments, technology, textbooks for three years. We don’t need them. Teachers proved themselves to be creative and resourceful enough.
10. Speak. Up. Your silence speaks volumes. When you say “learning loss” from last year, you discount all the incredibly hard work teachers and students did last year. When you talk about “learning acceleration” this year to catch up, you ignore the current trauma still happening. Don’t talk to me about grit. Our kids have enough grit to last a lifetime. It is time for you to acknowledge that your teachers and your students have worked hard and are still working hard. This doesn’t require any money. It does require you to back off your current narrative of full steam ahead.
Good leaders acknowledge that sometimes they need to step back and reassess. It is time education leadership did that. My superintendent listened to me when I expressed my concern over how much testing and data collection is being done in 11th grade. While not much has changed (yet), his willingness to even hear me is the direction all education leadership needs to take. Don’t tell teachers to “just teach,” and “stop complaining.”
If districts don’t listen, the consequences could be dire.
The author of this guest column, Jordan Kohanim, is a high school teacher in Fulton County.