If teaching is considered by many to be one of the most honorable professions, why does it take teacher walkouts around the country to draw attention to the continued lack of support for educators in the U.S.?
Well, we could start by treating our teachers better and giving them a greater role in decisions affecting the classroom.
Some criticism has come from the corporate reform movement that stands to profit from public dissatisfaction with public schools.
Moreover, if test scores aren’t where we want them, policymakers often blame teachers — an easy scapegoat rather than addressing the real problems of poverty and social inequity that certainly impact student learning and reach far beyond the control of teachers.
But teachers are now fighting back.
From West Virginia to Arizona to North Carolina there is a resounding, collective wave of voices advocating for better pay, increase in per-student expenditures, health-care coverage in retirement and respect.
On May 16, many teachers in North Carolina will take a personal day for a "March for Students and Rally for Respect" that coincides with the opening of the North Carolina General Assembly. Several of the state’s largest districts plan to close due to a lack of teachers that day.
Though support for these walkouts is mixed, it is important to understand what we all have to gain from changing how we view teachers and teaching in this country. Refusing to change will have serious consequences for our country’s competitive future.
Low teacher pay is certainly a deterrent for some considering the profession. When you adjust for inflation, teachers earn about 11 percent less than they did 15 years ago yet are being asked to contribute more toward health insurance costs.
Last year North Carolina ranked 35th in average teacher compensation, according to the National Education Association.
North Carolina ranks fifth in the Southeast in average teacher compensation, which recently crossed the $50,000 a year mark for the first time. However, this figure is misleading. Many teachers, without salary boosters obtained through national board certification or local supplements, won’t hit the $50K mark until their 25th year of teaching. Even in Wake County, where the local supplement is one of the highest in the state (around 17-18 percent for teachers with up to 20 years of experience) educators won’t make $50,000 until their 13 year.
Without a change, how will we recruit the best and the brightest to teach?
Colleges and universities are seeing a decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs. A 2017 study by UCLA found that only 4.6 percent of surveyed freshman planned to pursue education as a field of study. This is down from 11 percent in 2000.
Teachers are also leaving the profession in large numbers with turnover rates highest in the South and in schools that have high representations of students of color. These red flags should signal what is on the horizon, if not already upon us — massive, persistent teacher shortages.
Historically, when confronted with teacher shortages, requirements to become a licensed teacher are lowered. Usually this means hiring those with advanced knowledge in a subject area but with no specific teacher training — also critical to being an effective educator. This practice of placing deeply under-qualified personnel in classrooms is equivalent to giving a medical license to those who received their bachelor’s degree in biology, but have no clinical training.
When we lower standards to this degree, we de-professionalize the field and marginalize the importance of highly trained professionals. Ultimately, we jeopardize the K-12 education of our youth.
Lowering the bar to staff our classrooms is the wrong answer. Instead we should explore incentives as a means to increase the pool of teachers. While the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children is a reward for many, providing sufficient pay and incentivizing the pursuit of advanced training are other options worthy of pursuit.
However, attractive incentives will not address the one, fundamental issue that continues to hold many back from exploring teaching as a career — the public’s general perception of teachers and the teaching profession.
The best reward we can provide our teachers is our respect. While policymakers can work on pay and other tangible incentives for our teachers, collectively, we can check our perceptions of teachers to ensure our judgements aren’t biased by public opinion or false narratives. We should support teachers during this movement to reclaim their voices. In doing so, we are ensuring a vibrant and sound education system for this and future generations.
Kristen Stephens is an associate professor of the practice in Duke University’s Program in Education.