Why is there a teacher shortage?

Summer passed without blog posts from me. To be honest, I ended the last school year seriously demoralized about the state of education, and I couldn’t find the words to express what I was thinking. Then today I received a phone call from someone I do not know and the phone call brought my words back.

The person was asking for information about a good friend of mine. This friend is an ELA teacher, and she’s something special. She thinks deeply about the students in her classes and about the subject that she teaches. She is highly educated and reads widely. She goes way above and beyond to try and help her students connect to literature and writing. The curriculum she crafts is deeply creative. She respects her students and her students respect her.

The person calling me today had been given my name by my friend as a reference.  What shocked me is that the call was not from the principal of a school. My friend, a long-time teacher, devoted for decades to education, for the first time in her adult life is looking for a job outside of the classroom. What a loss to the students she might have taught this year. What a loss to the colleagues she would have worked with. Multiplied many times over, which I know this situation to be, what a loss to the nation.

Everywhere I go, in groups of teachers on social media, in staff gatherings, in letters to the editor and blog posts, teachers are talking about leaving the profession. They recall the joy they used to feel in working on being the best teacher they could possibly be in the service of kids – and they lament how much of that joy has been robbed from them. Rather than engaged, hopeful, supported, they feel stressed, beleaguered, disrespected by administrators, school boards (and even our governor, who has called teachers ‘a dime a dozen’). Many suffer with caseloads and schedules that are too burdensome to permit them to establish the relationships with students that they used to be able to have and that are the foundation of an educational partnership. Almost everyone feels oppressed by paperwork and protocols and procedures and micromanagement by others that they do not believe help students.

I was taken aback by the phone call I received today, but I was not completely surprised. This teacher has talked all summer of dreading a return to the school where she works. At her school she has increasingly felt in the past years like a cog in the wheel, working in service not so much of igniting deep thought, careful reasoning, individuality, and a joy of learning in her students, but rather of producing standardized measurable outcomes to please administrators and officials.

We badly need schools to graduate citizens who are engaged in community and society and who can think for themselves.We will need creativity and imagination from our citizens in order to solve the huge problems our world faces. At the moment, the trend in education is to drive the thinkers amongst our teachers away from the classroom in favor of those who embrace the dictates of others and are content doing grunt work. Yet the thinkers are the very teachers we need –  the ones who demonstrate for students what passionate engagement and imagination and brilliant individualism look like. Students need adult models who think outside the box in order to learn from them what original thought is.

Losing teachers like my friend is a step in the wrong direction. Administrators, school boards, parents, legislators, and interested citizens need to figure out what can be done to attract thinkers back to teaching. In the meantime, for the health of my friend, I told the woman on the other end of the phone she should snatch my friend up as an employee, and she did, leaving one more unfilled job opening in a school this year.

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.