What can we do to produce the best schools?

The teacher shortage in the USA is linked to the way I feel when I turn the calendar to ‘August’ each year. Despite the pride I feel in my work, and the enjoyment I derive from so many aspects of it, I still experience waves of anxiety and stress at the thought of the upcoming school year. Most teachers are already working long days at this point in the summer, preparing curriculum, preparing materials, trying to get a head start on meeting what we all know will be extraordinary student need.

Teachers all across America feel the same way I do. Some of them are not returning to the teaching profession this year.They’ve had enough and have resigned in the name of personal mental and physical health. Some, early enough in their careers, have turned to the law, or policy, or administration.Teacher stress is at the root of our teacher shortage.

When people read about teachers who feel overwhelmed, many jest, citing long vacations and short school days.These people have never walked in the shoes of a public school teacher in America – not in wealthy suburban schools, not in struggling rural schools, and certainly not in the huge number of schools in the country whose children are underfed, under-housed, and under-parented. Like the folktales of men who didn’t realize the work associated with home making until they walked in the shoes of their wives, so those who discount tales of teacher stress have no idea what they are talking about.

Teachers are overwhelmed – by quantities of work no one could complete well even in a twelve hour day – they are leaving the profession – and fewer young people are choosing to go into the field. Our schools risk being staffed by untrained, unqualified teachers. What’s to be done? After all, an under-educated populace is the enemy of democracy.

If we want to make teaching a desirable profession again we’re going to have to invest in it. Young women these days have their pick of professions. They’re no longer choosing teaching just because it’s one of the only fields open to them. Talented young men and women can choose the law, business, medicine, or banking. If we want to attract young people to the field of teaching the conditions must approach those of the other professions.

Retention and recruitment of teachers demands this: a reasonable teaching load, with ample paid time for planning, assessing, and professional development; respect from the culture for those who enter teaching; a salary that can support a family without the need for side jobs; a voice in decisions impacting their work in the school.

The data is clear. Countries that invest in teachers both financially and in terms of working conditions have the best school systems. We need to turn our approach around. Otherwise, when August 1st rolls around each year, and the hiring window begins to close, we can expect our principals to be panicking because of unfilled jobs and our children to be preparing for a raw deal.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.