There once was a farmer who had a beautiful apple tree. This tree produced the best apples in the entire county, and as a result, the farmer’s wife became known far and wide for baking the best apple pies. Everybody raved about them and clamored to get them. The farmer and his wife recognized that the secret to the pies was in the quality of the apples from the tree, and so they took care of the tree. They made sure it got enough water and fertilizer and pruned it when necessary. The tree flourished and continued to produce beautiful apples that then produced exceptional pies. The farmer and his wife never focused on how much money they made, knowing that if they nurtured the tree and ensured that it produced the best apples, then their pie baking business would thrive.
As the years went on, the farmer and his wife got older and were no longer able to keep up with the maintenance of the tree and the baking of the pies. So they turned things over to their children. But the children didn’t have the appreciation of the tree that their parents had. They saw the baking of pies as nothing but a way to make money, and if you made more pies then you’d make more money. So that’s what they focused on. Instead of continuing to take care of the tree, they focused on the harvesting of the apples, and they began to automate the baking of the pies. After all, this was the 21st century, and it was important to take advantage of technology now.
Initially, they sold more pies and made more money than their parents ever did. Everybody congratulated each other and remarked how foolish their parents were to hold on to the old way of doing things for so long. Then a funny thing happened. People started to notice that the pies weren’t as good as they once were. The apple tree had not been tended to as well as in the past and had begun to produce less and less quality fruit. Soon the tree became nothing but a shell of its former self. The pie business began to suffer because there weren’t enough quality apples, and demand started to become impossible to keep up with.
The children of the old farmer and his wife began to curse the apple tree and blame it for the failure of their business. They said, Who needs that tree? We’ll just plant new ones. And that is what they did. They planted many new trees and experimented with ways to produce trees at the lowest cost possible. After all, if you study a tree you should be able to replicate and reproduce it at will.
Unfortunately, the new trees were not of the same quality as the old tree, and the fruit they produced had nowhere near the consistent output of the old tree. The children tried to pass off the fruit in the pies, but the public was not fooled and recognized that the pies were of an inferior quality than before. Business continued to suffer.
The children wrung their hands and searched for answers. Finally, they realized they would have to provide nourishment for the original tree. However, the tree was in such poor shape when it came to nutrition that it would take a substantial investment to restore it to its previous state. The children were unwilling to make such an investment on the original tree, even though they knew they would have to do something. They decided to provide the tree with a little more water and a little more fertilizer than before. Then, when the pie business returned to its former glory, they would invest more.
The tree recovered slightly and the pie business increased slightly, but it never returned back to the same level of success. The children continued to debate the proper amount of nutrients to provide to the tree, but never agreed to care for it in a manner that allowed the tree to produce enough quality apples to fully supply the pie business. The children always claimed they never had the resources to fully invest in the tree, despite always having money for sports cars, jewelry, and trips to Europe.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m not really talking about trees and pies here. I’m talking about teachers and a decade of bad education policy that has brought us to a point where it is becoming apparent that we don’t have enough teachers at all, let alone high quality ones. Though this analogy also applies to the state of public education as well.
As Andy Spears, an education blogger, points out this week in the Tennessee Education Report, things are a little rough in Tennessee, where Shelby County is starting the school year short 100 full-time teachers, and Nashville is starting 80 positions short. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) countered his report with a correction that the actual shortage was 34.5 positions and that was better than in previous years, but I ask, is that really good enough? What if we’d be focusing on addressing teacher concerns all these years instead of focusing on policies that made the profession more unattractive. Things like over- reliance on TVASS to rate teachers, fights over teacher tenure, and performance pay.
Are we ever going to stop looking at incremental improvement as being good enough, or are we going to actually address the problem and solve it? As mentioned above and in Chalkbeat Tennessee, Memphis is short about 100 teachers. But what’s missing from this article is that starting in 2013, Memphis began referencing itself as “Teacher Town.” And who was at the center of that initiative? None other than the recently-departed ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, with the assistance of Teach for America. So if “Teacher Town” is experiencing this kind of shortage, then I think it’s safe to say the planting of new apple trees ain’t working out so well.
I, along with others, have long charged that Teach for America has been a major contributor to the devaluing of the teaching profession. Defenders of TFA claim that it is unfair to affix such a large amount of blame to an organization that has such limited impact. The truth is that TFA spends a large amount of time on college campuses attempting to recruit high performing students to become teachers. That is a difficult task when these potential teachers take a hard look at their potential earnings as a teacher and how it relates to their peers. So the counter argument has to become that teaching really isn’t a career; it’s just something to do for a couple years to build your resume until you start your real career – and that’s what TFA has been selling to their recruits. That’s the narrative that gets passed around the dorm rooms and carried out to schools, and after 25 years has become part of the fabric.
That narrative held water when the country was in the throes of a recession. That is no longer the case, and as a result, TFA can’t meet their promised numbers. Now we are finding as a result of our dependence on the new apples, that their inability to produce at a sustainable rate means we have a shortage. The problem is that we have been so focused on planting new apple trees that we have neglected to nurtured our original prized apple tree, and the prized tree isn’t as strong as it once might have been. To bring it back to true life is going to take some investment and reexamining of policies put in place over last 20 years ago.
Policies have been implemented that made the teaching profession less and less attractive, and the result has been fewer and fewer young people choosing to pursue a teaching career while more experienced teachers exit at a faster rate. Fellow blogger and former teacher Mary Holden does an incredible job detailing how those policies became enacted in her blog post titled “Teaching, A Love Story: Part 2.” It’s a lengthy read, but essential to understanding how we got here. I’d also read Part 1.The bottom line is that we are now losing good teachers at alarming rates.
The teaching profession has also fallen victim to society’s devaluation of service-based professions. Teachers, along with police officers and first responders, are always among the lowest paid yet most criticized professions. People will make unfounded charges, like teachers have summers off so what’s their complaint? But that’s not an accurate reflection of reality. Breaks have become shorter and the increased pressure has translated into little down time. This year, MNPS paid for teachers to return to school two days before students arrived to prepare and get classrooms ready. That was helpful, but the truth is that most teachers had already started showing up at school two weeks before that knowing that there was no way 2 days was enough. So in order to make sure that things were ready to go when students arrived, teachers had to donate time. Next time you hear someone leveling crowing about teachers having a relaxed schedule, ask them what they though would happen if teachers only worked the time the got paid for. I guarantee school days would look a whole lot different.
A teacher friend who helped to unionize her charter school in Philadelphia related a story to me about negotiations with the school. The school wanted to provide after hour tutoring and was willing to pay the teachers. When the union rep tried to pin them down on the exact number of hours they were willing to pay for, the school balked at paying for anything but the required hour per day spent actually tutoring despite there being no curriculum created, and therefore teachers would have to invest additional time creating curriculum for the tutoring. Their argument was teachers are already doing that on their own time anyway, so why should we pay them? But that kind of thinking has got to stop. I’m sure just about every teacher who’s got a little experience can tell you a similar tale.
Here’s another story I’m sure just about every teacher can tell you. In Nashville, teachers get $200 per year to spend on supplies for their classroom. In my household, we blew past that in the first week. Now all you teachers, raise your hand if you fall into that category. Lots of hands up, I bet. In fact, the average teacher spends about $513 of their own money per year on school supplies. Now let’s do a little math. Teachers in Tennessee just got a raise. In MNPS, if you have been a teacher around 8-10 years, you were looking at the biggest raise, perhaps as much as 7%. Sounds great, right? Well, take $43k, which is the average salary for a teacher in MNPS with a Master’s degree. That comes to about a $3k raise. Sounds great until you take $600 out for taxes, subtract the $513, and you are left with $1887. Divide that by 22 paychecks, and you are left with $85 dollars more per check. That’s welcome money, but the Brinks truck is not exactly backing up to unload. Not the kind of money that legislators think is worthy of genuflection. Especially in light of the fact that Tennessee has the surplus money that could take substantial steps toward closing the wage gap.
It’s going to take more then just money though. We continue to devalue the teacher who remains a classroom teacher throughout their teaching career. Somehow, just teaching kids and impacting lives year after year is to be considered a negative, when it should be receiving the highest honor. So much of the retention effort is placed on finding leadership pathways and advancement opportunities, but why don’t we focus more on validating and respecting a teacher’s choice to stay in the classroom? We all get misty-eyed at pictures or video from a classroom teacher’s retirement celebration, yet we do everything possible to make that a pursuit of the Holy Grail. There should be no greater pursuit then preparing the next generation of leaders and citizens. After all, that’s what most teachers will tell you is the reason they got into education. To teach kids.
This is why teachers need to be given a larger seat at the table. And not some specially created, teacher’s-only table that takes things back to the main table. Teachers need a seat at the main table. For example, here in Nashville we have a new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. Dr. Joseph has created a transition team to look at district policy and make sure that we are following best practices. To his credit, it is a very diverse team, albeit one that only has two classroom teachers. What is the message that sends? Imagine the message that would have been sent had a large percentage of the team been made up of classroom teachers? We try to sell them on the importance of taking leadership roles while we exclude them from the most meaningful and overarching leadership roles.
Perhaps if we had teachers at the main table, we could have real conversations about quality teacher evaluation, the effects of trauma on our kids who live in poverty, meaningful standards and curriculum, and a host of other issues. We all bemoan the amount of time spent arguing about charter schools, vouchers, and other reform ideas that take the focus off children. But I can promise you this: if teachers, and principals, made up a substantial portion of the conversation, the focus would get directed where it belonged.
I’d be willing to bet that ridiculous ideas like using unlicensed teachers, developing standards for social emotional learning, and a more rigorous test for teacher licensure would get stopped before getting traction. Who but a politician or a corporate head would think that in a time of teacher shortages, you should create a more difficult test that comes at an increased cost of $300 to the candidate. I think back to when my wife and I were first married and she applied for her license. That amount of money was a week’s pay. A weeks pay in order to qualify for a job that would pay you substantially less then your peers over your lifetime. We say we want only the best and the brightest, well the best and the brightest ain’t falling for that three card monty trick. We are just blessed that there are enough dedicated, qualified, energetic, creative, caring, individuals willing to overlook our bull shit. (I know, I’m not supposed to swear. But sometimes when a word fits…it fits.)
We have a lot of quality apples out there. Teachers, who despite all the challenges, show up and produce everyday. But those numbers are going to continue to diminish unless we start nourishing the profession a whole lot more than we do now? And it has to be in a way that’s a whole lot more meaningful than 10% off at J Crew or a 3% raise every 10 years. As President of Math America John Ewing states, “If we truly want to respect our teachers, we need more then words – we must learn to trust them. We always like to say that a teacher is the most important in-school factor in a child’s education. It’s time our actions matched our words.