Slowly at first, then more rapidly, schools across the country begin to close. This is not like earlier in the pandemic when courses were shifted online and some form of learning was continued — some better than others.
This time, the schools simply closed. There was no learning opportunity, no occasional online classes, no work to do at home. There was simply no more school.
This might sound to some like the beginning of a story about a dystopian world of the future. The reality is that this is essentially what happened across the United States this past January, including to my daughter’s school. The teachers are not really disappearing, at least not yet; but sufficient numbers of them and other school staff were out with COVID-19 or in quarantine due to exposure that schools across the United States have been forced to close their doors and essentially declare “snow days.”
Many parents and community leaders may look upon this as one more inconvenience in our pandemic lives. The reality is that parts of this country are facing unprecedented shortages of teachers and other school staff — aides, lunch professionals and school bus drivers. The great resignation caused many employment sectors to grapple with reduced staffing. The education field has been careening in this direction for many years and the pandemic is highlighting just how precarious the situation may be.
Data from across the country indicates that teachers are leaving the profession at a faster rate than before the pandemic and a survey last spring revealed that more than half of teachers responded they were considering leaving the field in the next two years (a 20 percent increase from pre-pandemic numbers). In fact, my colleagues and I get calls regularly from superintendents looking for teachers to head classrooms and no one can find enough substitute teachers. It’s not uncommon now for superintendents, principals and other teachers to try to cover a classroom when a fellow teacher is out. New Mexico even called in members of their national guard to cover empty classrooms earlier this year.
I very much appreciate the principal and the national guard stepping up to fill in. But, it does leave me wondering about the inevitable loss of learning. Education does not take place in a vacuum. Well-prepared teachers have structured learning plans that sequence educational activities in ways that help students progress toward their learning goals, in each class and across a semester.
At times, my second grader comes home from school and tells me she had five teachers that day — it’s a constant revolving door where little structured learning can occur. Imagine if a student, every day, had such a revolving door of teachers. There are a growing number of districts where it is a struggle to maintain the continuity of the teacher in a classroom and it certainly makes me appreciate the fact that most days, my daughter has the same highly trained educator guiding her learning. It also makes me worry about a future where all students will have will be a rotating cast of babysitters.
A key component of this crisis is that there are not enough new teachers being produced to replace those who are leaving. During the last decade, we saw double-digit decreases — coast to coast — in enrollments in educator preparation programs. Part of that was due to the layoffs and lack of hiring that ensued after the great recession. But it was also due to other factors such as perceived low wages (or actual low wages in some states), de-professionalization of the field due to increasing external demands, such as the over-reliance on standardized tests, and changing perceptions of the societal value of teachers. Fundamentally, one could argue that it boils down to how society does (or doesn’t) show its appreciation for teachers.
In fact, in 2018 a 50-year poll on public perception of education reported that for the first time in its history, a majority of respondents would not want their children to become a teacher. And, it is not just the public that feels this way.
In 2017, Nancy Cantwell, who was the first recipient of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, which comes with a $1 million grant, stated that she would not encourage young people to go into teaching. What does it mean when the winner of what is called the Nobel Prize in Teaching doesn’t see a positive future in the profession?
What happens when there are no more teachers to appreciate? This is no longer an existential question. It is one that we as a society need to face today.
This being the end of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I hope that we can all pause to show appreciation for the high-quality teachers who have the knowledge and skills to create transformational learning experiences. And, as a society, we need to do more to not just celebrate those who are so critical to our children and our communities but also return teaching to the honored, valued and rewarded profession it once was.
Jason E. Lane is the dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University.