A Letter to the Editor
I sat down late last night and read through the Sunday paper, one of the things I really enjoy about my weekends. It just so happened that there was an article about the teacher shortage in Minnesota. Although the article was good and made some valid points, I wanted to respond and so I have crafted a letter to the editor in hopes of it being printed in the Opinion section of the paper at a later date. I want to briefly touch on the ideas shared in the article, and then I will share the part I will be submitting to the paper (in italics).
To read the full article from my local paper, go here.
Here are the major ideas of the article.
Hard to get a license
In this first section of the article, it discusses the difficulties one faces when attempting to get a license to teach when teaching is a second career. Meaning that when someone is in another field and decides to put their skills to use in the classroom, it can be challenging to obtain a license through the state. Most of the challenges come in the form of required courses and exams one has to take, not to mention the amount of paperwork and legal hoops one has to jump through while doing this work. One person interviewed mentions how they (a charter school) struggle to find qualified candidates to fill their open positions, in part due to the challenges one faces in obtaining licensure.
The author of the article points out that the current practice for someone hoping to obtain a license comes by way of a traditional university program. One of the people interviewed in the article is attempting to start a new path for teacher-licensure that is not directly tied to any formal education, and rather relies on the strengths of an apprenticeship. The hope here is that without going through a formal education process, more people will be willing to take on the work and enter the teacher field.
Recruitment and Diversity
As a state, the teacher training programs enrollment declined by 27% in a four year span. In addition to the drop in enrollment, there is a serious lack of people of color who are looking to enter into the teaching field. In fact, only 4% of Minnesota teachers are people of color, while 30% of scholars in public schools are scholars of color. The article contends that if there was a greater number of teachers of color, there would be a greater likelihood of decreasing the opportunity gap our state currently faces.
The final piece of the article touches on the educational system being able to retain teachers. According to the article 25% of educators left the field in 2014 due to "personal reasons", which was up 5% from 2009. One educator interviewed in the article touches on the need for more collaboration and less time spent on standardized exams. In addition to the classroom challenges, the article touches very briefly on the societal needs of scholars and how that may affect them when they come to school.
To all of this I say, "Yes, AND..."
The field of education has challenges and successes and is one of the best fields of work that exists, in my humble opinion. Although the article written in the Sunday paper of April 9th touches on a few of the reasons that Minnesota, along with many other states, are facing a teaching shortage, I believe there are additional factors that should be considered.
When one looks at the work that is to be done by a teacher, chances are colleges and universities are going to struggle to encourage young minds to enter the field. I do not believe that this is the fault of the universities, but rather the lived experiences of scholars prior to entering college. My belief is that the place of an educator is not as revered as highly as many other careers. When scholars are asked, even at an early age, there is not a high number of scholars who say their dream is to become an educator. We often hear desires to be doctors, lawyers, business women and men, or professional athletes or performers. So convincing young minds that education is a worth-while path is a struggle from a very early start.
Digging in deeper, when we discuss recruiting educators of color the challenges only increase. Scholars of color often have similar dreams for their future, and being an educator usually is not a part of those plans. However, the fact that scholars of color are not as interested in the education field may be due to the fact that most of the education they received was created, taught, and reinforced by the predominant culture. When I say predominant culture, I mean the white culture. Even in today's classroom scholars of color struggle to connect with the classroom content or the content delivery, because it is neither culturally relevant or sensitive. And it makes sense that convincing a scholar who may have felt ostracized by their own education is going to avoid returning to that environment.
It is true that some educators go into the field and realize shortly thereafter that education is not where they belong and therefore step out. However, after having spent my entire adult life in education, I have seen educators leave because what they hoped education would be is simply not what it is. That is a general statement and does not describe all educators who leave the field, but I believe that to be the main reason educators choose to find other fields of work.
Most people I met in the teacher prep program were excited about two things: working with scholars, and sharing their passion about a specific content area. They spent at least four years working on their ability to engage with scholars in a meaningful way, deepening their understanding of their content area, and worked hard to fine tune the other skills necessary to be an outstanding educator. They entered their first teaching position with a ton of energy and enthusiasm for their craft.
An extremely successful teacher spends hours upon hours outside of the school day preparing for each and every day of their class. The school bell may ring at 2, but most of the teachers who I have seen making the largest impact on scholars are the ones who put in another 2-4 hours after school making sure their classroom is inviting, that they are prepared for all things that may happen the next day, and that their content is delivered in a relevant and real way that will engage their scholars. Top-notch teachers spend their evenings reading books about educational practices, participate in Twitter chats that focus on instructional practices, and go to bed with a stack of items to be graded or reviewed for the next day.
Educators who have shown themselves to be highly effective usually give up a few days of their winter and spring breaks to come into the building, or tuck away into a quiet part of their home to work on their classroom needs. They take time away from their family to impact the lives of scholars in hopes that what they offer makes a difference and positively effects their future. Nights, weekends, and early mornings are given to their craft in hopes that it makes them better so that their scholars' experience can be that much better.
We as educators understand that we are unique in the fact that we work in a profession that allows us to take up to 3 months "off" and reset. But when you speak with a highly effective educator, very little time is spent "off" during those months and much of the time is spent reflecting on the previous year and preparing for the upcoming year. Again, educators spend time at their home or in a classroom environment increasing their knowledge and skill set. Some spend their own money on professional development to improve their work in a specific area or strategy. Others spend time with other educators in buildings thinking about how they can impact the culture of the building to positively change the face of education.
And then there is the reality that many educators are in need of additional income just to pay their bills. So their summers are spent teaching in a summer school environment. They receive an extra paycheck and spend more time with scholars and getting that much better at what they do. Educators who work summer school can spend all of their summer in a classroom or planning for the upcoming year, erasing whatever "time off" they may have had.
In addition to the outside work that excellent educators take part in, there is the work done during the school day. Job-embedded collaboration continues to be done away with as budget cuts decrease the number of teachers and the amount of time teachers can get together. There is a reason for the recent increase in the number of "open work space". These spaces provide the necessary and desired areas for people to get together and collaborate. So while the world at large is increasing the time and energy spent to collaborate, the educational world is shrinking the amount of time educators can do the same. Lack of time to collaborate impacts morale as well as their ability to work with other effective educators to impact their own work.
So when we talk about teacher retention, let's talk about the real issues that impact one's desire to stay in the field of education. The time that it takes to stay committed to the work, which often goes unnoticed, is often the precipitating factor to one leaving the field.
If we truly want to see a meaningful change in education's ability to increase the number of college scholars in teacher prep programs, as well as the number of educators that remain in education, a lot needs to change. Everything from the kind of education our scholars receive from an early age to community support to funding must change and increase in order for the "teacher shortage" to improve. And that is going to take the work of more than just those interested in the field of education.
So to all of you excellent educators who are committing your time, energy, and dollars to your craft... Thank you! Those days spent in your classroom when it's sunny and 75, they aren't going unnoticed. I see you! Keep it up because it's making a difference for your scholars. You are making a difference!