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Why The Teacher Shortage Will Only Get Worse
And what can be done about it
Twitter has been abuzz with anger over Malcolm Gladwell telling remote workers that it would be best for them to go back to the office. This happens pretty often, almost as much as the 2016 Democratic presidential primary getting rehashed. I understand the negative reactions to what Gladwell wrote, but they are not particularly relevant to me. As a high school teacher, I am one of the white-collar professionals in the “essential” category, along with people doing other work that can’t be done remotely. (I should acknowledge that I get paid a lot more than the service and industrial workers who also have to clock in on site.)
The fights over “returning to the office” got me thinking about the teacher shortage, of all things. While so many white-collar other professionals have been able to benefit from the improved work-life balance afforded by increased remote work and service workers have seen their wages rise due to a tight labor market, teachers’ working conditions have markedly worsened without any additional compensation. They also bear the child care and transportation costs remote workers dodge.
The pandemic forced teachers to completely change their teaching practice from top to bottom, often more than once. I had to convert my teaching to an all online model, and then spent the 2020-2021 school year doing a “hybrid” format where I was teaching students online and in-person simultaneously. During the 2021-2022 school year I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom with all of my students, but COVID outbreaks caused chaos and one week of remote learning at the height of Omicron. In the meantime, office workers whose kids were back in school got to have a far more comfortable working life. If you’re a teacher, it’s easy to ask yourself why you went to college to do this when your friends seem to have it so much easier. This is a thing that weighs on teachers in normal times, but the new work model caused by the pandemic has made that question much more relevant.
Even with the students back in the classroom, there’s been no return to “normal.” The pandemic has not been easy on them, either mentally or educationally. Teachers have had to alter curricula to account for this, and have had to work extra hard to readjust students who got used to less structure. I am certain that dynamic will still be strong in this school year as well.
Keep in mind that I teach at a private school in Manhattan with small class sizes and a supportive administration. It is certainly a far cushier gig than what the vast majority of teachers in America have. If someone in my position is feeling burnt out and questioning their career path, that means things are really bad elsewhere. The proof is in the numbers of teachers quitting and the number of unfilled positions, something finally making the rounds on the news.
Those vacancies represent something much bigger than the burnout I am describing. I work in a supportive environment, so many others do not. Teachers have been the targets of a national campaign by conservative radicals to brand them as corrupters and abusers of children. They have passed laws targeting “critical race theory” and fired teachers for the crime of teaching this country’s actual history. Right-wing mobs have taken over local school boards across the country. After having sacrificed so much in the pandemic on low pay to be treated like dogshit, plenty of people are making the perfectly rational decision to quit.
This crisis has happened by design. The radical Right has public education itself in its sights, and by draining it of teachers they can then point to the mess they made and say, “see, public education doesn’t work!” The biggest reason the teacher shortage isn’t going away is because it is the policy of the Republican party in several states to make it that way. When they pass laws like Florida’s letting veterans teach with practically no training, they are undermining the quality of public education while telling educators that the state thinks anyone can do their job.
Florida’s response to its teacher shortage might be extreme, but the responses elsewhere have seldom been better because even the blue states refuse to offer financial rewards for joining or sticking with the profession. The contrast with the rest of the economy is striking. Just go outside and you will see signs at fast food restaurants and box stores promising high wages to prospective employees. The store and restaurant owners know they have to compete for workers in a tight labor maket. By contrast, schools are merely lowering the qualifications needed to teach. (This will also add an extra labor burden on teachers who must train these neophytes, clean up their mistakes, and take over their classes when they inevitably flame out.)
This attitude of complete disregard by the powers that be for teachers’ wants and needs only exists because that’s exactly how a lot of the public feels. The pandemic was a painful education in how little regard teachers are given. During the months I was working 10-12 hour days trying to keep everything together, I was reading multiple social media posts attacking teachers as lazy. (The irony that the people saying this have fought to keep working from home is not lost on me.) I had to listen to my own non-educator friends make constant similar complaints. Of course, I was reassured that I was “one of the good ones.”
The current shortage is only going to get worse unless something changes. A young college student seeing the deal so may office workers get compared to teachers’ immiseration is going to second-guess their desire to join the profession. That goes double or triple if they live in a state where local Republicans have turned teachers into scapegoats.
I have been trying to find things to cling to and stop my doomerism. On a personal level, I know the work I do every day matters. I know because students and parents tell me all of the time, and I am sure few other workers get a bunch of people sending them kind letters and cards of appreciation every year. On a general level, I remember that Abbott Elementary, the truest show about teaching I’ve ever seen, has been a smash hit. Despite the right-wing mobs at school board meetings and demeaning social media posts, many people in this country appreciate what we do. It’s now time for those people to put some pressure on their leaders to combat the teacher shortage with better treatment and compensation. Without that, there soon won’t be anyone left willing to do it.