When I left the classroom in 2014 after 14 years of teaching in the United States, it was for a variety of reasons.
Primarily, though, I felt a need to address systemic issues plaguing public education, some stemming from legislative and other state mandates that constrained the learning of the immigrant students I worked with.
I am not alone in this realization.
In K-12 schools across the nation, many classrooms lack teachers.
There are more than 2,000 open positions in Arizona, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association. One news outlet reports a total of 8,300 open teaching positions this January, including positions filled by long-term substitutes and others without full teacher certification.
Over 1,000 teachers resigned or abandoned their teaching posts within the first four weeks of the school year in Arizona, indicating a system crisis.
Although this problem is measurably worse in Arizona, many states across the nation have reported on teacher shortages since the start of the school year. There were as many as 60,000 open positions nationwide in September, 2016, with the majority of those openings in high-poverty schools.
A report published in September, 2016, by the Learning Policy Institute, notes many reasons our children don’t have teachers, including low salaries, poor working conditions, and limited mentorship and support.
Some of these factors influenced my choice to leave the classroom, certainly.
Some resulted from budget issues and shifting district priorities narrowly focused on standardized testing outcomes (influenced by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal policies). And some came from public opinion and public will, or lack of will to support and invest in education.
As Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania made clear in a 2001 paper, there are (and have been) persistent organizational issues that lead to attrition or flight from the profession and thus create what appears to be a teacher shortage. In fact, he argues, there is no shortage of qualified teachers in our communities.
Rather, qualified teachers are choosing not to teach in our schools because of structural issues. I am one of those teachers.
Two and a half years out, I’m happy to be doing the work I do as coordinator for refugee K-12 education in Tucson to support and train classroom teachers, to help refugee parents better understand and become advocates for their children within the U.S. school system, and to support the learning, achievement and integration of refugee and immigrant students through after-school programming.
Still, I wonder how long I can continue this structural work when the day-to-day need for teachers persists and when it hits a crisis level, as it just has in Arizona. Should I be back in a classroom?
It’s not a chicken-or-egg scenario, however. We need people in our classrooms today, and we need people supporting from the outside. We need both and we need you.
The axiom that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is lightly tossed about, but anyone who has tried their hand at teaching knows this to be far from the truth. It takes years of training, practice and study to become expert in the profession.
The first step is to enter a classroom and/or a teacher preparation program. Our children depend on many people stepping up and stepping into our schools despite, or rather because of, the challenge.
For those who can’t enter a classroom directly, there are many ways to support the teachers in our classrooms. It’s critical to stay abreast of the latest policies and funding decisions that impact classrooms, calling upon our elected and appointed officials to support teachers and improve working conditions. It’s important to donate essential learning tools and school supplies (pencils, paper, books, tech) that teachers otherwise pay for out of their meager incomes.
We must care for the teachers in our lives, helping them attend to the stress that comes with the job of caring for young people living in, often, adverse conditions. Finally, it is time to say thank you to teachers and celebrate their contributions to our communities the way we acknowledge, celebrate and compensate first responders, professional athletes, actors and pop stars.
Julie Kasper is a National Board Certified Teacher who works with and for K-12 refugee students and English Language Learners in Tucson, Arizona, and is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.