Need Teachers?

Like every other state in the union, Michigan is scrambling for teachers.

This is, of course, utterly unsurprising. We’ve all absorbed the message: Treat people like crapola for long enough, and nothing—not even an enticing starting salary (in Montana) of $32K–will lure them into the classroom. That starting salary is, by the way, $15K under Montana’s definition of a living wage.

Not many independently well-off citizens want to become certified teachers, working for fun and pocket change. Gone are the days when teaching could be seen as an easy, optional second income. Especially these days, when teaching could kill you.

Rebuilding the teacher pipeline is actually something we could do. The infrastructure and research necessary for producing fully qualified, even dynamic, public school teachers is in place, and can be expanded and enhanced. All it would take is adequate funding and a commitment to solving a few thorny issues in public education.

Such as respect for the profession, and an acknowledgement of the stabilizing role public school teachers play in American society. For starters.

Done well, there could be a turnaround—in, oh, a decade or so. In the meantime, however…

The MI Department of Education recently sent out thousands of letters to retired teachers, asking them if they’d like to come back, promising to facilitate re-certification procedures, smoothing a temporary path back into the classroom to help stressed local districts. They also pledged to provide some Title II funding for districts to ‘Grow Their Own’ teachers (support staff and other promising candidates) and urged districts to use newly available money to significantly raise early-career teachers’ salaries.

All good, right?

The response from retired teachers was somewhere between bitter and scornful. NOW you want us to come back? When we’re old and more vulnerable to this deadly virus? When you underpaid us and cut support from the schools and kids we served for the last two decades? NOW we’re valuable?

I get it.

But I can’t help thinking that MI is doing the right thing, in asking recently retired teachers to come back. That’s certainly a better response than lowering the bar, letting uncertified, untrained folks, with/without college degrees, into the classroom as the teacher of record. People who see teaching as a temporary job.

A few years back, newly retired teachers in Michigan were not welcomed back as substitute teachers. Legislation in MI limited retired teachers’ work in public schools, claiming that drawing a pension and substitute teaching was ‘double dipping’—as if picking up an extra 75 bucks a couple times a week was unfairly greedy, rather than a gesture of support for currently practicing teachers and local schools.

All of this speaks to a larger, harder-to-define problem around the labor force in public ed. Teachers aren’t simply taking early retirement or walking off the job because they hate remote learning or they’re sick of filling in for colleagues when there are no subs. Teachers are suffering a collapse of morale.

And they’re not alone—2.9% of the American workforce, 4.3 million people, quit their jobs at the end of summer. Since the beginning of the pandemic, seven million workers have just dropped out.

Some of them, undoubtedly, were teachers. If 3% of the workforce in a medium sized school district—1000 employees, say—decided the pay/reward equation wasn’t worth it anymore, a district could easily lose 30 people. That would impact everything from bus routes to reading programs.

And those are national figures—it’s hard to calculate just what pandemic teaching in a politically crazed world has done to the public school instructional force. A teacher friend says all conversations about education right now center on: burnout, early retirement, sub shortages, anger & frustration, mental distress and growing & unreasonable expectations.

That’s quite a list. And the profession will be in crisis for some time to come, even if everybody stopped yelling and started working on rebuilding our public education system tomorrow.

It’s worth asking: Cui bono?

Who benefits from this scenario–a constant churn of teachers at the lowest steps of the salary scale, and a re-conceptualizing of the teacher as technician, ‘managing’ learning remotely, teaching as starter career? Who is trying to strip money and professionalism from public education?

It’s that harder-to-define problem. It’s not just about filling classrooms in 2021; it’s about what teaching will look like in 10 years. Teaching has always been a morally-driven job. Unless you are experiencing joy—or at least satisfaction—in your job, it’s unsustainable.

To his credit, Michael Rice, State Superintendent, and the MI Department of Ed, proposed some reasonable policy solutions for producing more qualified teachers, in addition to asking the old ones to come back. They begin with tuition reimbursement for prospective teachers who make a commitment to teaching, and education loan forgiveness for current and future teachers.

They would provide college scholarships for high school seniors who want to teach, and improve access to university ed schools and teacher preparation programs. Better mentoring. License reciprocity with other states. All good ideas. Will they fly?

Michael Rice: If we expect a major commitment from a wave of young people as our next generation of educators in our great state, the least we can do is to make sure that they don’t go into debt to perform this all-important public service.

That—and a major uptick in salaries—would help. But the thing needed most—public trust in teacher professionalism and community schools—is tangled in ugly politics.

8 Comments

  1. Great article. Yes they have made the profession utterly miserable nation wide. When I started teaching in 1979 people stayed in the profession until they were on a walker. Now no one lasts more than five years, because it is miserable.

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  2. Full disclosure: I taught for 39 years in the same public school district as Nancy, and we are friends.

    Two things:

    1. In my opinion, gerrymandering has ruined public education in Michigan. The only path to saving our schools is to do away with gerrymandering and wait x-number of years for the ship to right itself.

    2. Here’s a fun game for retired teachers to play: What would it take to get you back in the classroom? I retired in 2016. I still have all the energy required to be an effective teacher, in my opinion, but even I were offered a million-dollar salary, my answer would be “I wish you well—I really do!—but no thank you. I have too much self respect to subject myself what’s going on today in Michigan’s public schools.”

    Thanks for your thoughts, Nancy.

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    1. Hey, Kirk. I agree that the 2010 ‘RedMap’ gerrymandering went a long way in damaging public schools in what was once a flagship education state. Of course, Michiganders voted 60-40 in 2018 to get rid of gerrymandering, and that’s not going particularly well. In fact, the committee designed to untangle Michigan’s gerrymandered districts was supposed to meet yesterday for public comment on their tentative maps, but the meeting had to be canceled because of death threats. So there’s that.

      I would not go back into the classroom because I know how vulnerable I am, should I contract COVID-19. Even fully vaccinated and boosted, it would be too dangerous, especially since my discipline is music, and it’s probably the most dangerous subject to teach right now. But prior to 2020, I did lots of volunteer work and workshops in public schools, with music teachers here. I know districts that rehired retirees (once, when their replacement quit, mid-year), seeing it as a way to put a known-effective teacher in place.

      Teacher morale is so low–that includes practicing teachers as well as retired teachers. That’s the core problem. And it plays right into the hands of the so-called reformers who have used the pandemic to escalate their long-time goals: Cheaper teaching. Cheaper, ‘basic’ schools. Control over curriculum. Privatizing as much as possible.

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      1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Nancy. It is my opinion that the NEA should ask teachers what they want, then state what their teachers want, and then if they don’t get it, go out on strike. Fortunately, those who do not belong to a cult led by a person whose behavior is guided by his trauma-borne malignant narcissism are less likely to negotiate with death threats, but teachers should view a nationwide strike as a genuine tool to help them do their best to educate or nation’s youth. Now is the time.

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  3. Twenty years of test-threaten-punish school “reform” with a pandemic chaser have taken an irreparable toll on the profession. Final nail has been the switch from a tradition of strong parental support to parent anger and acrimony within in a cloud of cultural and political divisiveness. This is probably the beginning of the end of compulsory public school education as we knew it.

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