I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.
It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.
You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.
It’s easy to tire of ‘Why I’m Leaving’ articles, but this one caught my eye: Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits an All-Time Low:
‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’
Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.
“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”
‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’
Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?
In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.
Educators aren’t happy.
Remember the famous Santayana quote–Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? There have been terrible times in education before—segregation and gross inequities, pre-Brown Decision in 1954, and the shameful reaction to it, for example. School funding crises and hot-button issues bubble up periodically. Hard times are not new.
I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.
I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.
I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.
It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround. The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.
What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?
“What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?”
Every school system I worked for had a different way of determining starting salary, but they all depended on jumping through their unique set of hoops. I never expected to make a killing although I may have been less complacent if I realized that most of my social security from work outside of teaching would be viewed as a “windfall.” I have to say, though, that the deal breaker for me was the lack of respect demonstrated in so many ways, from abusive or passively aggressive parents to administrative dictation of what and how to teach. I only remember two students with whom I could not relate successfully. Both of them had problematic parents (entitled). I could have done better with them.
My final stint in the classroom was as a substitute in a nearby district. They were in the midst of the “technological revolution” and scripted teaching. I spent a lot of time supervising kids on computers, no 3-D teaching required. As a former special ed teacher, I enjoyed subbing in special ed. One particular math group drove me over the edge. I read from a script and the students completed the task in their workbook. I could not see what they were doing–there was NO representation of the workbook in the “teacher’s manual.” I literally just read the manual word for word. I hate to say it, but the computer could have done what I was required to do better if audio had been more advanced ten years ago.
So, pay teachers a living wage, one that will allow them to eventually retire without worrying. Most importantly, treat teachers like professionals. They are.
Salaries for teachers have been somewhere between embarrassingly crappy and mediocre, depending on school and state, forever. And yet, we’ve had decades where 2/3 of our teachers are satisfied–so it’s about the money, always, but it’s also about the way teachers are treated.
Nurses’ salaries used to be like teachers’–in the basement. But lately, they’ve taken an upward leap. And with the pandemic, we have seen the phenomenon of the traveling nurse, who makes top dollar (for nursing) and has her/his travel expenses paid. A friend whose son runs a travel nurses company says that hospitals are losing money by paying what travel nurses demand–but have no choice but to hire them.
A nurse buddy tells me that travel nurses are a mixed bag. Some step up and are indispensible. Others are marginal performers, but are filling spots that can’t be filled locally.
All of this makes me wonder: What if there were traveling teachers, who got signing bonuses, and a percentage stipend for teaching special ed or math, where there are no certified teachers? It’s so much better, of course, to give everyone a 25% raise, and not pay someone who’s not on the local team a premium for simply showing up and being certified and licensed–and willing to read out of the manual.
Thing is, there were never good times in public education. Or the good times were never very good for whole lot of people in the system. I can think of many things that would make most teachers happy but continue a system that never had the goal of helping every student be successful. That’s what would make me happy at this point – completely changing the system.
As a long-time teacher (back to the 70s), I would agree that there have not, in the past 50 years, been unmitigated good times. Only better times and worse times. I also agree that the system needs a reboot, and that student well-being needs to be the central goal.
I am honestly very much against loan forgiveness because I would rather see teachers paid a salary that is lucrative enough that it frankly doesn’t require loan forgiveness. Your salary determines your overall lifetime income, which is key to retirement. Want the best and the brightest? Get rid of the WEP and GPO, pay teachers a salary commensurate with other professions, give them more autonomy, and less expectations that they should work 50-60 hours a week, while working a second job (because of their current low salary).
I’m sure you know that student loan forgiveness would inject lifeblood into the economy right now. It would take a pretty huge salary boost to make loan forgiveness for teachers negligible. In other words, I think loan forgiveness as tradeoff for choosing to teach is a more attractive and doable option than telling teachers that they should just pay their loans and in 30 years, they’ll have more for retirement.
In my 40-odd years in education, salaries and raises have never been stable, rising and falling with economic conditions. Did you think about retirement income when you were a 20-something newbie teacher? I didn’t. I was just trying to pay my rent and put gas in my tank. I understand what you’re saying, from the perspective of a long-time veteran, but I think the chances of getting some kind of loan forgiveness plus salary raise are more palatable to policy-makers than, say, a 50% boost in salaries.