Back in the early aughts, I ran a local rock and roll club that had air conditioning problems. My entire summer was spent listening to people tell me that a) it was hot in the club, and b) their diagnoses of what I needed to do about it. Needless to say, I quickly grew tired of the conversation about air conditioning because a) I knew what the solution was: buy a new system that actually met the needs of the space, and b) for whatever reason, the owner was unwilling to invest in the solution, and therefore, all we were talking about was band aids instead of solutions. The recent discussions I’ve seen on the teacher shortage feel eerily similar to me.
Over the last several months, there have been several articles written on the current shortage of teachers, why they leave the profession, and how best to recruit and retain more teachers. A lot of smart people are putting their heads together and trying to figure out solutions. Most of the solutions, though, are based on money and creating more pathways for teacher leaders. In my humble opinion, both these ideas miss the point and actually contribute to what I see as greater societal problem, the devaluing of service professions.
Now before we go any further, let me invoke my standard disclaimer. I am not a teacher, nor do I play one on TV. Furthermore, I would never attempt to speak for teachers either. All I can do is relay the conversations I’ve been privy to with teachers and encourage policy makers to actually talk to teachers more. That doesn’t mean just holding another forum where you invite a bunch of teachers and then either get them to agree with your suppositions or pretend to listen while proceeding down a different track. It means really listening and not trying to counter their views with results from a survey that anybody paying half attention to can figure out is not an accurate reflection of what’s really happening. Because if they were accurate, why are we even having this conversation? That said, let’s proceed.
In every conversation I’ve ever had with teachers, either directly or indirectly, the biggest complaint has never been about money, lack of professional development, or lack of leadership roles. It has been overwhelmingly about time. Loss of instructional time. Loss of planning time. Loss of personal time. The ever increasing demand on their time. Virtually every negative conversation has been rooted in the lack of time and how it’s causing teachers to not be able to be as effective as they would like and that they just don’t know how they’ll be able to keep up.
I am not dismissing the importance of money. Lord knows salaries are entirely too low. But if you talk to teachers, how many were inspired to teach by the lure of financial gain? Overwhelmingly, the teachers I’ve come in contact with over the years entered the profession due to a strong desire to work with children. Most did not expect to make a lot of money, but the chance to work with children and make an impact on future generations was so overwhelming that they were willing to overlook the financial drawbacks in order to serve a societal need.
Let’s be honest, the service professions – teachers, police officers, nurses, fire fighters, first responders, etc. – will never be paid as much as they should be. It’s an age old argument. I can remember growing up and reading articles about the salaries of sports stars versus teachers. Someone once explained to me that the only way to make real money was to sell something. If you generate more revenue, you will receive more income. Life has borne that out for me. So the best those in the service profession can expect is some small raises here and there and maybe a few small bonuses. Raises that we will trumpet with huge fanfare, but in reality put less than $100 a paycheck extra in their pocket. If you’ve got a family, you know how quickly that money disappears. This is despite the essential roles these service professions play in society. I shudder to think what life would be like without those willing to make the sacrifice.
It used to be that we respected that sacrifice and allowed teachers to really utilize their skills. We trusted them to do what’s best for educating children. In recent years, though, we’ve been bitten by the accountability bug. Not only are we going to ask for teachers to sacrifice, but we are going to demand that they account for it. We are going to make sure that we do everything possible to find who the bad teachers and get rid of them. Completely ignoring that teaching is not just a science but an art form.
Think about it like this: I’m going to give you a dollar a day to perform a task for me. The task is something you love doing, it comes naturally for you, and so you easily accomplish it every day.
Then one day I decide that I need to make sure you are actually doing the job, and so I ask you to fill out a few forms every day. You are fine with that because I am paying you, they don’t take too long, and you are still able to focus on the task. As the weeks go by, I keep adding forms for you to fill out and you keep completing them, but it is now leaving you less and less time to get the task done. Because of all the forms that I now require, your performance begins to slip and there are some parts of the job you just aren’t able to complete. You bring this to my attention, but I just brush it off, saying, “These forms are extremely important. Perhaps you are not managing your time properly. I need you to fill out these forms so I can determine if you are utilizing your time properly.”
Well, your performance continues to slide, so I decide that it is important to give you more training. Unfortunately that training comes during the time you are supposed to be performing the task I was paying you for. So you are either going to have to shortchange the job or come back later in the day when you are usually doing other things to complete it. You really like doing this job I was paying you for, so you make sacrifices to get it done. But you start to wonder is $1 a day really enough? With all the paperwork and training I’ve added, you are left with little time to do anything else. That’s when I decide to give you a nickel raise. Yep, a five percent increase.
At the same time, I realize I could get some high school students to do the job at 90 cents a day. I give them a little training, but you are such a wealth of knowledge that I am going to rely on you to take a leadership role and train them up. Asking you to assume a leadership role should be considered a sign of respect, even though it means you are spending less time doing the job you really love and that I originally asked you to do. Soon you are spending all your time on training these high school kids, going to training classes yourself, and of course, filling out forms about all of these things. In addition, there are tools you need to get the task done that I was not providing. You find yourself more and more investing your own money to secure those tools to complete the task.
Thus, a situation was created where you weren’t doing what you love to do, all your time was taken up doing things to prove you are completing the task, you were having to invest your own money on needed tools to the complete the task, and the pay wasn’t sufficient. You had friends of similar experience who were making $1.35 a day and were not nearly as stressed as you. You’re just not sure if you should continue in this line of work, even though you really do love completing the original task.
And that’s what we’ve been doing to our teachers.
Furthermore, we’ve shifted the conversation away from the true motivation of why people enter the profession to being one about money. In my opinion, this also changes the talent pool from which you are recruiting. You are not pulling from a group of applicants who feel the need to serve, but rather from one that sees money as being the prime motivation. Teach for America has already instilled a model where a young person can make some money now, but then utilize their experience into a higher paying future position. By changing the talent pool, we are leaving behind those who want to serve children and instead focusing on attracting those looking for financial gain. Doing so does not bode well for the future. We say it is all about the children, yet we continue to pursue policy that puts them secondary.
Lately there has been a push to develop more leadership roles in the classroom for teachers and that is a good thing to a certain extent, but we need to make sure that we are not downplaying the role of teacher who just wants to spend their career teaching. A number of years ago, my wife, a school teacher, took a leadership position in part because she felt the pressure of needing to do more. Two years ago, she returned to the classroom, and I can honestly say that she is 100% happier and a lot more impactful than she was in that leadership role. She maintains a team leadership role now, but it is one that allows her to work with children daily and doesn’t take take her out of the classroom. I’m not downplaying the need for those who assume leadership roles; I’m just saying that for many, the desire is to work with children everyday. That desire should not be negated, but rather fortified.
Like the previously referred to air conditioning problem, I think the solution to retaining teachers is pretty clear but will require some investment. First of all, let’s let teachers be teachers. Talk to them and find out exactly what it is that is eating up instructional time, planning time, and collaboration time. If we can hire support staff to assume some of those duties, then we need to do so. If testing is eating up too much instructional time, then we need to adjust. Instead of simply demanding that teachers be mentors, we need to provide them time to actually mentor. We need to respect teachers and understand that most have already undergone extensive training to prepare for their jobs. Training should be easily applicable. More training with less time to implement is useless. We need to trust our teachers to do their jobs, and we need to give them the time needed to be effective.
In Tennessee in 2011, legislators removed teachers’ rights to collective bargaining and replaced it with collaborative conferencing. Since that time, Nashville teachers have worked without a contract. That translates to a lack of access to an updated employee handbook, minimum hours set but not maximum, and virtually no say in work place conditions. Currently, the Metro Nashville Education Association is soliciting signatures of teachers for the right to represent them and call for a collaborative conference to address these issues. This is an important step in the right direction, but still distressing in a lot of ways. Teachers should be consulted; they shouldn’t have to demand to be heard.
In closing, I’m certainly not going to downplay the need for salary increases. Money is important. But as a recent article in the Atlantic stated, “Just paying teachers more won’t stop them from quitting.” We need to do more. Satisfied teachers should be the number one tool for recruiting and retaining teachers. Giving teachers the time and respect they deserve as professionals would be a step in the right direction.