The unnecessary teacher shortage

The education system in the United States depends on taking advantage of teachers, and this is why we have a national teacher shortage.

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years; the Metlife survey of teachers reports that ‘the percentage of teachers who say they are very or fairly likely to leave the profession has increased by 12 points since 2009, from 17% to 29%’.

The teacher shortage has been brewing for years – ever since women started entering professional fields other than nursing and teaching. Until then, the nation could count on a steady supply of young, intelligent, educated women for the teaching profession. These young women cared deeply for children and they entered the field filled with boundless energy and idealism. They cared so much for their work, and were so grateful to have a meaningful profession, they were willing to work hard for less money than what their male counterparts were earning in other fields. This is no longer the case. Well-educated women are opting for higher-paying fields that offer better working conditions and more respect from the culture than teaching does. Most are not willing to sacrifice their own well-being to keep schools afloat.

Meanwhile a simultaneous shift in how schools are run has created the perfect storm. Where once teachers felt creative freedom, they now complain about being micromanaged. Where once they were encouraged to think about child development, they now are hounded to produce rubrics, and follow protocols, and record results in on-line data systems, with the aim of churning out high-scoring test-takers who make school leaders look good. Where once school administrators were knowledgeable about teaching and children, now they are more likely to be business oriented, with – at best – a year or two or three of teaching under their belt. And, to top it off, these administrators are evaluating teachers.

The final wind gust to the perfect storm is the sheer work load and encroachment of the job on the teacher’s hours out of school. The hours of a teacher’s work day are now brimming with mandates, and so teachers have little time during the day for what most consider essential to teaching – curriculum planning, the creation of meaningful assessments, consulting with colleagues, and connecting with kids and their parents. All of this must now be done during non-working hours, which of course impacts the harmony of teachers’ households and the ability of teachers to get exercise, get enough sleep, and have enough time with their own families – one of the biggest reasons people choose teaching as a profession in the first place (the hours are mythologized as suitable for a family with children). We are so stingy toward education in this country we will not pay for enough teaching staff so that each teacher in a school has a healthy workload she or he can handle. This is short-sighted at best.

Children spend more waking hours with teachers than they do with their own parents. Most parents would like to think their children are spending those hours in the company of a highly trained, enthusiastic professional. The reality is that more and more children are actually being taught by people who are daily considering whether this is the job for them. The talk in staff rooms and on teacher sites across the nation is of leaving the profession. If the current rate of attrition continues we can be sure qualified new teachers will think twice about choosing a profession so many apparently do not enjoy. This is no way to run a democratic country where an educated citizenry is essential.  Finland understands this. Singapore understands this. Poland and Canada understand this. Why is it so hard for us?


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.