Feeling the Teacher Shortage

As we’re gearing up for another school year, I can’t help but notice the copious amount of open teaching positions. I’m currently trying to fill a special education position. I had  3 people apply for the position (only two actually held the required certification). I’ve recently spoken with other principal/superintendent friends of mine who serve economically disadvantaged areas. All I can say is… wow. They are being hit hard by this shortage (that’s usually how it is. The disadvantaged areas get hit hardest). One principal friend of mine still has 5 or 6 openings and has received minimal interest. An assistant superintendent friend of mine in a disadvantaged area stated that this shortage has plagued her entire district. It’s widespread. School starts in a week or two! This is getting real!

Teacher shortages aren’t new. However, what’s most startling about this issue is that the number of shortages keeps increasing. States that weren’t experiencing shortages are now experiencing shortages and the majority of states/districts that were already experiencing shortages are now experiencing even worse shortages. Essentially, it comes down to this: it’s getting worse and it will continue to get worse before it gets better. Why? Well, let’s take a brief look.

It appears that years of ragging on the teaching profession, rising dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the profession, fear over unjust pension reform, the constant pummel of school initiatives and uninformed reforms, the punitive accountability movement (mostly related to constant standardized testing and questionable teacher evaluation methods such as Value-Added Measures), and increased work loads are really starting to leave their mark. There are entire books and dissertations written on almost every single one of the aforementioned issues (see almost anything written by Diane Ravitch between the years 2000 and 2018 for more information on these issues that have spurred an increasing teacher shortage).

If you were to analyze education history, you’d see an interesting trend. For instance, take project-based learning (PBL). PBL has been around since the 1600s in Italy when architecture students wanted more meaning and relevance in their learning. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, John Dewey brought PBL and experiential learning into focus. And now, in the 21st century, PBL is a major focus for many “innovative” schools. Though a seemingly unrelated topic, I mention PBL to demonstrate the cyclical nature of things in education. To combat the teacher shortage, I see politicians enacting some type of band-aid legislation that will help in the short term. For a time, we’ll see fluctuations in the nationwide teacher shortage. For a time, we’ll see more students entering college to become teachers. For a time, we’ll have copious amounts of candidates applying for our open positions. But, in the long run, band-aid legislation won’t help.

On both a micro and macro scale, how do we effectively combat the teacher shortage?

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“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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Education/Teaching: This Profession Isn’t Just a Paycheck, It’s a Purpose.

I had a rather nontraditional start to my career as an educator.  I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.  After graduation, I got a job in a public relations/marketing/advertising agency downtown.  I was so excited to start my post-college life.  I saw myself living downtown and making a living in the business world.  I felt confident that I had a job and that I would soon be making enough money to leave the nest and start my own life.

However, it now occurs to me, I never really thought about my purpose.  I do have to give myself a little credit.  I was only 22.  Finding a purpose in life takes some people their entire lives.  At the age of 22, purpose wasn’t something I was thinking about.  In fact, I hadn’t really thought about my purpose at any point in my life.

Anyways, I started my job interning as an account manager for this PR agency.  The hustle and bustle of the commute and the first day felt exciting.  I was “adulting” and it was kind of cool!  Fast forward about three weeks…  After some time making the commute in the rat race and working in the agency, I began losing interest.  It didn’t feel fun anymore.  I started dreading going to work.  There was nothing invigorating about sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls all day (of course, not all PR agencies are like this.  However, this was my experience).

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something extremely important.  I was not fulfilling my purpose.  I had no conviction.  I had no passion.  I felt like an easily replaceable cog, just spinning and spinning as the days went by.  I had daydream nightmares of myself getting old still doing the same thing, day in and day out, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls.

The day came for my internship to end, and I was not offered a full-time position in the agency.  This may sound strange, but I felt a small (very small) sense of failure because I was not hired on full-time, but I also felt an extreme sense of relief.  After that internship, I was fairly certain that I wanted nothing to do with the business world, or at least a company that made me feel irrelevant and easily replaceable.  Some may say I didn’t give the business world enough time and should have stuck it out because not all businesses or agencies are like the one in which I worked.  I know that.  Yet, I’m extremely thankful I didn’t stick around.

My mom was a principal around the time that my internship ended.  She told me that I should look into substitute teaching to make some money while I was job searching.  I did.  AND I LOVED IT!  Who loves substitute teaching?  Subbing is notoriously difficult.  Students don’t always treat subs well.  The pay isn’t that good.  I had no insurance/benefits.  I didn’t know much about education at the time so I occasionally felt unprepared.  But, I began to notice something.  I noticed something about myself as I began interacting with students and the school/district community.  I was happy.  I felt a connection with education and with all my students and their families.  I began to feel a sense of purpose.  Because of the connections I was making with students and the school community, I felt like I was making an impact.  My students, (which weren’t really mine at the time because I was only subbing, but still), really helped cultivate this purpose in me.  I began to feel a strong sense of conviction.  I needed to become a teacher in order to help positively change the lives of my students!  So, that’s what I did.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently interviewing candidates for multiple teaching positions in my building for the 2017-2018 school year.  There are hundreds of books on interviewing.  These books delineate types of questions to ask potential candidates.  They highlight nonverbal cues to look for while interviewing candidates.  However, none of the books touch on purpose, or at least they don’t go into depth about it.  One of the things I’m looking for in candidates (among the plethora of other criteria I look for in good teaching candidates) is PURPOSE.  I wish I could define this better (so then I could write that book, lol).  Sometimes, I even wish that purpose was more quantifiable.  I’ve hired teachers in the past who were/are very passionate, and I think this is an aspect of purpose.  Yet, I don’t think it’s the same thing.  It’s hard to describe.  But, as a leader making hiring decisions, sometimes, you just know when someone has/knows his or her purpose.  It comes through in all of their answers and their questions.  It comes through as they describe their day-to-day responsibilities interacting with children.  It becomes apparent when candidates talk about the time they spend with their school communities.  At the end of the day, I’m looking to hire teaching candidates who view this job as their purpose, not just a paycheck.

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