Awareness of and solutions to the teacher shortage crisis are prolific in opinion pieces lately. The number of teachers ready to walk away from the profession are staggering and indicate an untenable future for public education. The solutions pitched hit a wide range of ideas – from self-care to administration reducing workload – but don’t really get to the systemic changes that must happen to redesign towards finding work-life balance for teachers. (Which, by the way, is also something that we want for the future workforce we are currently trying to educate in this system.) Let’s fix this.
I have the perspective of a new teacher, joining in a year of crisis. However, my true perspective is from my background in strategy and systems so I always look through a big lens first. What I am seeing is a tone-deafness in leadership combined with a generationally evolving populace of teachers who will not tolerate society’s increasing and changing demands on them. Older teachers and administrators are still leaning on the way “they did it” – the model of the system – while students are challenging this at every turn.
Teachers are a unique blend of caregivers with patience and insatiable curiosity. They are intelligent and educated, yes, but they also want to be there, watching students grow. Because of this innate desire to care, they are taken advantage of, as caregivers frequently are. And thankfully, they are hitting a brink where they are saying no. In that world, we hit a talent management crisis.
A recent Forbes article is gaining a lot of momentum encouraging administrators to lighten their staff’s workload by reducing policies, demands, and expectations. I found myself nodding along with this and the numerous other articles published in the past couple of months. One of the shocks of becoming a teacher was the absolute lack of time. The media is abuzz with stories of teachers leaving or threatening to leave the profession. The mid-COVID “great resignation” is impacting all sectors of the US economy. But teachers are givers and teaching is seen as a stable career that is historically insulated from economic bumps and turns. Furthermore, teachers serve a unique purpose in developing our citizenry. While burnout is the buzzword, what is currently happening in schools is closer to demoralization. “Burnout is often a more temporary condition in which an educator has exhausted the personal and professional resources necessary to to the job. Demoralization occurs when an educator believes she is unable to perform the work in ways that uphold the high standards of the profession” (Walker, 2021).
According to the Washington Post, this is a key reason for the departure: “The overarching sentiment: Teaching was already too much – and with the increased stresses and demands introduced by the pandemic, they’d simply had enough.” While the pandemic is often cited as the reason for this massive attrition, it was really the final blow to an already tenuous system.
Teachers are frustrated, and they have been for quite some time. But what about real, structural change that supports teachers and helps shape education for our future workforce and its citizens? How can we effectively manage our nation’s amazing resource of creative, talented, and educated teachers? Here are ideas to fix this, ranging from national structural change to tweaks in school cultures:
- Treat teachers like professionals – Trust teachers to do their job. Yes, there needs to be oversight as well as checks and balances, but let teachers manage their day. There is no need for them to be held accountable for every minute of the day. We already know teachers dedicate countless hours outside of their school days to their students and their profession. Let them show up for their students and shine without being micromanaged. They are knowledge workers whose success should be measured by their accomplishments and for providing quality educational experiences. Society in general demands more flexible working conditions and we can’t let teaching be the square peg for the round hole.
- Set boundaries and cultivate psychological safety – Mental health is abuzz with boundary setting. People should set limits to ensure self-care and preserve our mental bandwidth. The same needs to be done by school divisions/districts. This requires upper management to communicate what they will and will not ask their teachers to take on. Leadership should also actively engage in dialog with teachers about what is actually causing stress in the classroom and school day. This requires cultivating psychological safety where teachers can be candid about what is causing stress. There is chronic mission creep for public schools in the form of teacher expectations – personalized learning, social and emotional learning, restorative practices, mental health checks, etc. While these all have great intentions, they can’t be piled on without additional resources.
- Increase curricular autonomy within pedagogical constraints – While not all teachers should be expected to design their own curriculum, there should be some autonomy in allowing them to instruct in a way that makes sense to their lens of experience and expertise. Teaching one unit before the other might make sense to some given their background or creative instructional ideas. If the school sets the pedagogical approach, then the teachers can develop their flow for their subject. The metric of success should be defined by the goals set, not the pacing guide.
- Design for flexibility – One of the biggest detractors to the teaching profession is the lack of flexibility. Regardless of policy, a teacher knows that when they take time off they are increasing the burden to their fellow teachers, and it becomes easier said than done. The schedule could be redesigned to facilitate cross-curricular projects and blended learning to build more planning and flex time into teachers’ schedules. We are marching to the industrial drum with our prescribed-by-the-minute, teacher-led blocks. Let’s get creative and problem solve ways to slowly climb out of this old structure and free up the much-needed resource of time.
- Utilize the community – Design schools that utilize the resources of the community and offset some of the burden of education from teachers. Place-based learning allows students to learn and grow in and with the community. Interweaving this into the curriculum would allow community members to take over for a day with an authorized staff member from the school while teachers get more job flexibility. Furthermore, being able to anchor learning from breaks and time away from school – outside of the classroom – to what is being taught inside the classroom expands the time for hitting standards and allows for deeper contextual learning.
- Retirement policies – From a policy standpoint, let’s push for shifts away from teacher retirement being bundled to their district or state. In today’s mobile workforce, this type of inflexibility makes people hesitant to enter a field when they can’t carry their time with them. It would also prevent teachers from feeling trapped. There is an apathy that exists when people are riding out their time until retirement. This doesn’t serve the students or the teachers.
- Tie pay to real-life experience – Becoming a new teacher would be more enticing if districts paid based on real-life experience rather than just time teaching. And currently employed teachers could leave and try something new, knowing they could return and not stall out on their pay. Furthermore, “real life” is what we are educating for, so career switchers often have very valuable experiences to share.
- Recruit leadership from outside of education – Education is unlike many industries in that it requires significant time in the classroom to be promoted to leadership. However, just because you are a great teacher does not mean that you will be a great leader. Oftentimes, bringing an external perspective can bring fresh ideas. Regardless of background, leaders should be able to exhibit compassion and empathy to classroom teachers so that they can respectfully manage a staff of teachers. Even with the prior classroom experience, district officials and administration often forget the feeling of being in the classroom, managing students while instructing, as is evidenced by professional development initiatives being pushed down for teachers to execute and manage. Good leadership would design these policies with user-empathy regardless of their background.
A common theme in these ideas is subtracting something to increase potential for something different. The expectations of what a teacher is responsible for has been steadily growing – more standards, more social and emotional learning, more oversight of students, more management of parents, more ed-tech to manage, and the list goes on. A recent post from a teacher in Atlanta sums this up nicely:
“The death-by-a-thousand-papercuts list has been compiling for as long as I can remember: classes that are too large, administration that doesn’t support them, over-fixation on standardized testing and scripted curriculum, feeling as though educators have no power over decisions made at the district, state, and national level.”
Leidy Klotz writes in Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less that “[w]hen humans solve problems, we overlook an incredibly powerful option: We don’t subtract. We pile on ‘to-dos’ but don’t consider ‘stop-doings.’ We create incentives for high performance, but don’t get rid of obstacles to our goals.” This passage is a great lens to use when evaluating existing policies. If leaders ask, “what value is this adding?” when attempting to create a policy to change something, they might look to re-evaluate by subtraction – if a shift in policy creates a problem, perhaps the problem could be solved by undoing rather than adding something new.
Ultimately, the best approach is to start from scratch performing a needs assessment/gap analysis to determine where our goals are misaligned from the job expectations of teachers. But I think a lot can be done in the interim from educational leaders leaning in and really listening to the staff. And in turn, teachers should make their expertise and perspective heard by voicing productive suggestions to their federal, state, district, and school leaders, on social and traditional media, and in the comments here. There is not a quick fix for our nation’s education system, but I am excited to see the disruption happening. I am optimistic that the shifts will be positive and will serve our students well. Teachers spend 180 days a year intimately molding tomorrow’s adults for the future. Let’s honor them, respect them, pay them, and listen to them.