Media Focus on Teacher Shortage Evokes Blunt Responses from Educators

Recent front-page stories in the New York Times and elsewhere have drawn attention to the re-emergence of teacher shortages as a nationwide concern. On August 16 the Times letter-to-the-editor column featured some telling comments from educators themselves, including a strongly worded statement from AFT President Randi Weingarten. Here’s a sampling of those letters for your edification.

Randi Weingarten:

We applaud you for shining a light on the economic forces that helped create the national teacher shortage:  low pay, higher student loan debt and recession-linked layoffs. But if you ask teachers why young people are shunning the profession, and why so many abandon it after just a few years, you’ll get an earful.

We have always asked teachers to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Mom and Dad. Now, we judge them by a faulty, narrow measure—one standardized test in English and one in math—and then blame them for not being saviors. Teachers are used to the pressure cooker but are stressed out because they aren’t getting the support, resources, time and respect they need to do their jobs.

Educators have been hit with a barrage of new mandates but given little or no support or training to make them work. Think of the debacle in New York: testing kids on content covered under the new Common Core standards before giving teachers the time, curriculum or latitude to actually teach that content, and then using those tests as the basis of teachers’ evaluations.

Thanks to our test-and-punish fixation, high-stakes test prep has eclipsed teaching and learning and is sucking the creativity and joy out of classrooms. New and seasoned teachers want careers that allow them to make a difference, grow and effect change. Sadly, for too many, the profession today appears not to offer these essentials.

Nationally, we must get our priorities straight and do what’s necessary to recruit, support and retain great teachers—in good economic times and bad.

Ursula Ann Kelly, a teacher from Corrales, New Mexico:

I am an elementary school teacher, I love working with children. I considered my vocation constructive, honorable and a necessary part of building our democracy. While I would like to be paid better, I have taught for 20 years despite being poorly paid. And while I would like to be able to use the bathroom when I need it and have uninterrupted lunch breaks, lack thereof has not prompted me to seek another career. It’s not even being the scapegoat for so many social problems or continually set up to fail that make me want to leave. I can, however, tell you why I don’t want to teach anymore.

I am unable to see individual children as data points as required by the corporate reform movement. We are being forced to subject students to an inordinate number of tests that do not enhance their learning or childhood. These tests provide profit for corporations, and the results are used to ruin teachers. Children are collateral damage.

I do not like my professional value to be determined in a profoundly unfair manner through standardized tests and through observations by people whom I do not respect or trust.

I know I have made a difference for thousands of children. It breaks my heart to seek employment outside of what I consider my calling, but I cannot stay in a system that is motivated by money, not by what’s best for kids.

Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University:

As school districts work to fill vacancies, every parent, policy maker and taxpayer should be concerned by any approach that renders credentials optional. It is common sense that if we want our kids to succeed, we need excellent teachers in every classroom, particularly those in high-need schools. For teachers to be successful, they need strong academic preparation, clinical experience, mentoring and support. Without these components, educators can struggle at the start of their careers, negatively affecting their students and ultimately leading the teacher to quit the profession soon after he or she starts….

 There are no quick fixes here. It’s essential that teacher production be tied to market needs; that the focus be on rigorous teacher preparation rather than relying on emergency appointments; that attractive financial aid programs be created to attract high academic performers to teaching; and that effective new mentoring programs be adopted to reduce the attrition of new teachers.