If you are young and you want to make a positive contribution to society it is likely that teaching will come across your radar as a career worth considering: an opportunity to address a spectrum of our nation’s challenges at their roots be they economic, cultural, political, or well being related.
And yet, across the country, public schools are scrambling to hire teachers before school is back in session. America is currently facing a teacher shortage. Every year, more teachers are needed to fill empty spots in school districts, but more and more teachers are leaving the profession. Over the past three years, the number of teachers who have left the profession has grown, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many former teachers shift to positions in social assistance, like child care, nursing or family assistance. Between 20 and 30 percent of teachers leave within their first five years in the profession.
Current teachers aren’t just leaving the profession, but fewer students are majoring in education in college as well. From 2009 to 2014, enrollments dropped by 35 percent, reported the Learning Policy Institute. In a recent survey of students taking the ACT, only 5 percent indicated they were interested in a teaching career, a 29 percent decrease from 2010 to 2014.
The fact is that our young people can see that our public schools are outdated and even counterproductive, often teaching students to hate learning when our economy rewards only those who eagerly embrace ongoing learning. Consider the speed of technological innovation alone which demands that tomorrow’s employees be ready to learn new systems every few years – from mainframes, to desktop PCs, to handheld devices and cloud computing; and each new technology is coming faster than the one before it did. It’s hard to believe that an internet search company can make money, let alone outperform the titans of industry in terms of market capitalization. The world is quickly evolving while our public schools haven’t made any progress in 150 years.
Those young people who still choose to pursue teacher certification discover very quickly that making a difference as a teacher is like running a marathon while carrying sandbags and wearing a blindfold. In a 2016 poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed teachers are undervalued in terms of treatment and support. Teachers are, on average, being paid 5 percent less than they were in 2009. Teachers often have very little say in the curriculum they’re allowed to teach and even less of a say in larger administrative decisions that affect them directly. Young teachers are startled to discover that their professional union protects teachers who are neglecting their students and ignoring the needs of teachers who make herculean efforts on students’ behalves.
School district officials can see that students are not being prepared for today’s information economy and teachers are easy scapegoats. Those innovative teachers who are in touch with students’ needs and familiar with technology are most often barred from implementing their innovations which are foreign to their evaluators (e.g. mindfulness, use of smartphones). On the other hand, teachers hungry for guidance look up to highly paid administrators who rehash age-old, top-down, command and control methods that concern themselves with district priorities to implement superficial changes rather than fundamentally reforming pedagogy for the 21st century.
Recruiting teachers in rural and low-income school districts is even harder. Those districts aren’t able to compete with larger school districts regarding pay, and teachers are on the hook for purchasing most of the supplies needed for the classroom out of their own pocket.
When teachers leave school districts, students are put at a disadvantage. But, they aren’t the only ones who are affected by the teacher shortage. Teacher turnover costs the United States nearly $2.2 billion every year.
Proposed solutions include charter schools which give even more power to administrators and cause even higher turnover as young, inexpensive, idealistic educators are worked to the point that they cannot imagine a future for themselves as educators. Another solution is school choice which shifts federal funding to private and parochial schools, making these schools more affordable for the wealthy while remaining out of reach for the middle and lower economic classes and leaving public schools with even fewer resources and higher concentrations of students in poverty. Philanthropists like the Gates Foundation offer their own business-minded top-down approaches which fail to support great young educators from the ground up. These approaches are not as much solutions as political tactics to push agendas (both liberal and conservative) which, again, don’t have students’ best interest at heart as their focus is on what is important to the adults involved. Unwittingly all of these players squander the greatest resource in our nation – young people’s confidence in their future contributions to society.
So how do we transform public education so that students discover their innate love of learning in public schools? How do we get students to practice doing difficult things and grow to be confident, creative, and self-expressed lifelong learners? The key is those college-age youngsters who want to make a difference and believe that education is the most effective way to do so. Those ambitious young people who have grown up with big data, social media, and the cutting-edge tools driving our economy – a few among them will find answers. While our universities must train these future educators in pedagogical techniques based on cutting edge brain research, our public schools must then empower them to innovate and when they do so help them to share with their peers regardless of their tenure.
But how? I believe that transforming our teacher unions in the key to making this happen. Furthermore, I believe that organizing unions based on a decentralized network structure would create a professional environment that attracts young talent and empowers those few who are poised to innovate to spread their learning among their professional network. This includes bringing an “open source” methodology to curricula development, allowing for organic growth and innovation from a community of professionals.