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Immediately after winning a prestigious fellowship and becoming North Dakota’s first Albert Einstein distinguished educator fellow, physics teacher Michelle Strand had little time to celebrate. She resigned from the job she loved.
Strand was denied the yearlong leave of absence she requested to help guide federal STEM education efforts. In refusing to guarantee that Strand could return to the school district afterward, her superintendent in West Fargo cited, somewhat ironically, the teacher shortage.
Long before the pandemic coincided with historically low unemployment in other fields, a dwindling pipeline of new teachers and the early exit of experienced ones raised alarms. A recent Gallup poll found that K-12 workers are more burned out than those in any other field, while a Rand survey said that teachers and principals are twice as stressed as the average American worker.
Yet America’s answers to the teacher shortage often make little sense, like West Fargo’s choice to lose Strand rather than grant her leave. There is no shortage of bad ideas and ways that we are making matters worse, including:
- Downplaying it. A frequent response to widespread teacher unhappiness has been to note that it is unlikely to lead to a mass exodus. But simply hoping that too many teachers won’t quit when so many are already doing so — especially when schools can’t find substitutes and other staff — just means more work for already overburdened teachers. That leaves them teaching more or larger classes and adding the duties of absent colleagues, unable to teach to their own potential or help students reach theirs. Teacher burnout is a real problem, exacerbated by a failure to take it seriously and a lack of support.
- Using punishments. One way we know the shortage is worsening: more teachers are leaving mid-year. Some districts are fining teachers who quit during the school year; other districts are pulling their licenses, further restricting the future candidate pool. Retaining unhappy teachers punishes students.
- Donating donuts. Many districts acknowledge teacher stress but offer desultory, sometimes insulting, solutions like letting teachers wear jeans for a day (seriously) and advising them to practice “self-care.” In my district, a paid consultant told us to hydrate and dance at our desks — in the middle of the pandemic, pre-vaccines. Offering emotional benefits in lieu of competitive salaries or better working conditions is not new, but is especially inadequate now. So are otherwise nice ideas like having parents write thank-you notes and buy donuts. Small, individual, voluntary acts can’t counter systemic failures such as unhealthy school infrastructure and the overwhelming administrative burdens created by misguided make-work policies like failed teacher evaluation systems.
- Piling on. It’s not a solution to keep giving teachers additional responsibilities well beyond academics — such as encouraging them to raise funds for food, clothing and supplies; arming them and training them with active-shooter simulations; or telling them to add social and emotional health instruction. And even as teachers are being asked to do more, they are being scapegoated, with new censorship laws restricting what they can and cannot teach, with failure to toe the line resulting in firings and harassment. This pile-on from political leaders — do our work, don’t do yours — distracts teachers from the work they are expert in: teaching. And it also drains the teaching ranks. Just ask Willie Carter Jr., Kentucky’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, driven out of the profession by homophobic harassment.
- Loosening state requirements: There are ways to reduce red tape and ease obstacles, such as by subsidizing teacher education, that will help create a larger, more diverse teacher pool. But there are also dangers of deprofessionalizing the field by watering down meaningful requirements, as Arizona has done by no longer requiring new teachers to have finished college.
- Signing bonuses: Some states and districts are offering signing bonuses to new teachers and raising starting salaries while mid-career teachers remain underpaid, meaning that longevity and expertise go unrewarded. Similarly, one-time bonuses for all are nice, but don’t close salary gaps between teachers and other professionals. Teachers have long needed better pay. Ephemeral incentives to join a career that burns people out fast only leads to high turnover. Filling the teaching pipeline is essential but cannot be the only solution to the teacher shortage — it’s simply tweaking curb appeal while the house collapses.
The problem we face is best understood not as a shortage of teachers but a shortage of good teaching positions. Making the profession attractive and sustainable must be the goal.
Reaching that goal requires first listening to teachers about the stressors they face, which vary greatly based on their age, race and gender and on the social context of their schools.
It then requires our educational and political leaders to lead. They have the ability to provide high-quality mental health help for students and teachers in and out of schools; regulate guns; restore the child tax credit; and offer free school lunches. They can repeal overburdening and micromanaging mandates and educational gag orders. They can make it less costly and difficult to become meaningfully credentialed. They can increase teacher pay to levels that enable schools to retain and sustain their best.
Solving the teacher shortage requires much, but we can’t get there by focusing on the shortage. We will get there by focusing on the teacher, not shortchanging the profession.
Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former high school English teacher and co-author, with Catherine Lutz, of “Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.”
This story about the teacher shortage was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.