People Don’t Want to Be Teachers—Can You Blame Them?

From a New York Times column by Jessica Grose headlined “People Don’t Want to Be Teachers Anymore. Can You Blame Them?”:

Every week, it seems as if there’s another disturbing story about how difficult it is to be a teacher in 21st-century America. I’m not talking about the typical day-to-day work of teaching core subjects to children with varied academic and emotional needs — which is already a demanding job, made more so in the challenging aftermath of 2020.

I’m talking about teachers getting fired after criticizing a school district’s ban on students learning a Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus song about rainbows and acceptance; or for attending drag shows on their own time, away from school grounds; or for using a worksheet that went along with a Y.A. novel about a Black teenager being stopped by police. Last year, The Washington Post tallied more than 160 educators who had been fired or resigned in the prior two years due to “culture war” issues. There are reports of harassment and threats emanating from school board meetings.

Of course, I’m also talking about the potentially deadly violence teachers may face just by showing up to work. While school shootings are still statistically rare, in recent years, the number of occurrences has gone up significantly, and it’s hard not to be affected by the drumbeat of news stories about their prevalence — perhaps most indelible is the shooting earlier this year of the first grade teacher Abigail Zwerner in Newport News, Va., by a 6-year-old student.

Last year, my colleagues in Opinion’s video department highlighted the crisis of teachers quitting because they were pushed to their limits by children’s pandemic-related behavioral and emotional setbacks, staffing shortages that forced them to take on roles beyond their normal remit, including lunch and bus duty, and the aforementioned culture war vitriol.

The demoralization of today’s teachers is a problem that may be followed by an even more damaging systemic issue: Fewer college and university students want to become teachers, and the new teacher pipeline is drying up.

“The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years,” according to a working paper published in November by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. In it, Matthew Kraft of Brown and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University at Albany painted a dire picture of the profession:

Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20 percent and 47 percent in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshman has fallen 50 percent since the 1990s and 38 percent since 2010, reaching the lowest level in the last 50 years. The number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade, and the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81 percent to 42 percent in the last 15 years.

When I spoke to Kraft, he said that while we’re in a “moment of really acute crisis” right now, the “trend of declining respect and interest and entry and satisfaction in the profession” isn’t new — it started more than a decade ago. He said that while it’s tough to pinpoint, the cause is partly a combination of stagnant real wages for teachers while wages were rising in other sectors for college-educated workers, the increasing cost of higher education in general, and declining respect for the profession overall.

It’s important to note that teacher shortages are not uniformly spread across schools, districts or states. Kraft told me that where there are shortages “typically cuts along racial and socioeconomic lines.” There are particular shortages in rural schools and for STEM and special education teachers, for example. The shortages may be hitting public schools the hardest, because charter and private schools can be a bit more nimble about payment and staff allocation, but most kids go to traditional public schools, and when the issue is playing out at such a macro level, there may be spillover, Kraft said.

So what can be done to help get more teachers into the profession and keep them there? Cutting the costs of a teaching degree is one lever to pull, whether that’s through student loan forgiveness or college scholarships. Dorinda Carter Andrews, the chair for the department of teacher education at Michigan State University, told me that her school’s teacher preparation program is moving from a five-year model to a four-year model because the fifth year, which was traditionally an internship year, became a financial hardship for many students; they were interning in schools full-time without pay, and so could not take on additional work. “We have curated the yearlong internship into the senior year,” Carter Andrews said. M.S.U. wants to be responsive to students, and make sure they aren’t “going into debt for a profession that still underpays its employees.”

Teacher pay is an obvious concern, but it is really state dependent. According to the National Education Association, as of last year, the average starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree is around $39,000 a year in Colorado, versus about $60,000 in Washington State. Earlier this year the N.E.A. reported that when adjusted for inflation, “the average salary of teachers has actually declined by an estimated 6.4 percent, or $3,644, over the past decade.”

Susan Moore Johnson, a research professor in education at Harvard, told me that over the years she has interviewed thousands of teachers and says that while no one expects to get rich from the profession, most do expect to have careers that provide for a middle-class life. “I think teaching as a career has long been seen as something you could count on where you would have a job, where you could count on a retirement plan and health insurance,” she said, and now that’s not necessarily the case in some places. Striking teachers have written about relying on food stamps. In a new poll of Texas teachers, a majority cited poor pay and benefits as a major source of stress.

But perhaps just as important is that as a society we need to give teachers more respect. I heard from several teachers and education leaders that although there was an initial surge of support for teachers at the beginning of the pandemic, that dissolved over time. “There was this kind of swelling of pride in that the teaching profession is selfless and that we’re very skilled and parents were suitably impressed with how much the teachers could accomplish even under duress. So that had a honeymoon, and then the honeymoon was over,” said Wendy Paterson, the dean of the school of education at SUNY Buffalo State.

Allie Pribula, who taught at a public elementary school in Pennsylvania starting in 2019 and ended up leaving the profession at the end of the last school year, told me that teaching was a job that she always wanted to do, from the time she was a little kid. Burnout and overwork were factors in her decision to move on, but a lack of respect is a glaring issue that she wants to see rectified. “I don’t know how this would ever happen or what would have to happen to get this to change, but just as a whole, the parents, the community in general, just need to trust the teachers,” she said. Pribula added that many teachers she used to work with are questioning whether they want to remain in the job at this point.

If we want to attract and retain teachers, we’re going to need to do better.

Because I don’t want to leave you on a totally depressing note, I wanted to share a silver lining. Paterson said that in her many years as an educator, she’s seen the profession ebb and flow, and that right now she’s seeing more of a particular type of educator: people coming to the profession later in life, after trying different career paths.

With the caveat that teacher pay in New York is among the highest in the nation, and therefore a relatively stable career option for someone with a passion for education, I was inspired speaking to Chloe Mokadam, who now teaches high school science but spent her early 20s in theater school and then pursuing a master’s in biology. She had the choice to attend a prestigious Ph.D. program or go for her master’s of science education at Buffalo State, and she chose the latter, even though her parents “were not super mega supportive at first.”

She’s truly passionate about passing on her love of science to her high schoolers. “These are kids that need extra preparation, extra care, extra attention, just because of the world that they’re facing, but also they’re our future leaders. They’re the future scientists, they’re the future nurses and doctors, they’re the future, everything. And we need to be really tender and cautious and careful and protective over education because not only does this shape their minds, it shapes who they’re going to be as people.”

We need more people like her working with our kids every day — and it’s not just parents who should care. There’s a reason Florida has one of the worst teacher shortages right now — with culture war madness around every corner, why would anyone sign up for that?

Jessica Grose, a journalist and novelist, offers her perspective on the American family, culture, politics and the way we live now.

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