Maine’s teacher shortage could be fixed

The school year is drawing to a close, and teachers everywhere in the US are looking forward to a break from classrooms. In the face of mounting pressures, many are also weighing the advantages and disadvantages of remaining in the profession long-term.

We face a growing teacher shortage in Maine and in the nation as a whole. In Maine alone the following disciplines are on the US Department of Education’s Nationwide Listing of Teacher Shortage Areas: English as a Second Language, Gifted and Talented, Industrial Arts, Mathematics, School librarian, Science, Special Education, World Languages.

The reasons for the teacher shortage are obvious to those in the profession. Despite the capacity of teachers for hard work, and despite the pride they feel in their work, and the enjoyment they derive from so many aspects of it, they are faced with obligations no one could meet well even in a twelve hour day. As a result many teachers experience waves of anxiety and distress each week when Sunday afternoon rolls around, and again when they turn the calendar to August each year and contemplate another school year.

Teachers all across America are burning out, and this is why some of them will not be returning to the teaching profession next year.They’ve either already given notice or are considering resigning before retirement age in the name of their mental and physical health. Some, early enough in their careers, are turning to other professions.

People love to jest at the expense of teachers, accusing them of laziness and entitlement.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 students 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.

Many young people who are drawn to teaching understand that practically speaking the profession may not be the one they should choose. We see fewer young people in this country choosing to go into teaching. Academically successful young women these days have their pick of professions. Gone are the days when teaching was one of the only fields open to them. Now talented young men and women can choose the law, business, medicine, or banking – all much better paid than teaching, all held in more esteem by our culture, and all with working conditions far superior to a teacher’s.

If we want to attract young people to the field of teaching the conditions must approach those of the other professions. Otherwise our schools will soon be staffed largely by unqualified teachers, those who were not able to get jobs elsewhere. What’s to be done? After all, as John Dewey told us a century ago, an under-educated populace is the enemy of democracy.

Retention and recruitment of teachers demands this: a reasonable teaching load, with ample paid time in the week for planning, assessing, and professional development; respect from the culture for those who enter teaching; opportunities for professional advancement; a salary comparable with those of other professions; a voice in decisions impacting a teacher’s work in the school.

The data from the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) is clear. Countries like Finland, Estonia, Korea, Canada, Japan, and Singapore that invest in teachers both financially and in terms of working conditions have the best school systems in the world. We need to turn our approach to schools around. Otherwise, when summer’s end rolls around each year, and the hiring window closes, we can expect our principals and superintendents to be panicking because of unfilled jobs, our children to be facing a raw deal, and our democracy to be ever more at risk.

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.