Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

As Kentucky deals with a multitude of unfilled education positions with just weeks before the start of school, people are left asking “Where have all the teachers gone?” For those who have been in the education profession for any length of time, we could have told you this was coming. 

When we discuss the needs of teachers, we are often told that teaching is a “calling” and we should be “in it for the kids.” We are in teaching for children. These are our kids and we are always fighting on their behalf. Without exception, things that look like benefits for teachers are also benefits for students. From the logical, such as smaller class sizes facilitating more one-on-one instruction for students, to the long term, such as pensions being a means of encouraging talented young people to pursue education and make a difference with students, benefits for teachers are always benefits for students. Whenever we rally, we rally for our kids.

Teacher retention has long been an issue. According to the US Department of Education, we now have nearly 50% of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years. Read that again. Almost half of the teachers who enter the profession are gone within half a decade. Teachers leave for all kinds of reasons, but it has become especially difficult to survive in this profession as hit after hit comes from elected officials. Our pensions are at stake, we’re fighting off vouchers at every turn, and it seems we spend most of our free time being politically active. For the public looking in on educators, they see these issues and ask “Who would want to be a teacher?”

Educators have been able to view the slowly boiling frog for decades now. Where have all the teachers gone? As we lose our mentors, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the profession. Following the 2018 General Assembly, Kentucky teachers were dealt a hefty blow as we lost the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP). While KTIP wasn’t perfect, it facilitated a mentor relationship between new teachers and a veteran teacher, an administrator, and a university contact. While completing the sometimes stressful program, teachers made relationships where they could lean on a multiple veterans as a new teacher. Rather than removing the program entirely, which was done for budgetary reasons and to facilitate more local control, fostering a mentor program with less paperwork would have been better.

The lack of mentor teachers has been a slowly growing problem. As more teachers leave the profession, the dynamic of experience has changed drastically. During the late 1980s, the average amount of experience for teachers nationwide was 14 years. By the late 2000s, students were actually most likely to encounter a teacher with two years or less experience. The disparity is greater in schools traditionally labeled as struggling where the average amount of experience can drop even further. There is nothing wrong with young teachers. Young teachers are vital to our profession, but without veterans, they are leaving the profession at a faster rate than before. 

How did this happen? There is a strong correlation with the dates listed and the advent of public policy that began to significantly affect the education profession. With the implementation of high stakes testing, laws such as No Child Left Behind, and competitive grants with an educationalist slant such as Race to the Top, teachers have left or never even started the profession. While it’s easy to point and lay blame at the feet of our elected officials in Frankfort, this is a nationwide issue that will only worsen as time goes on.

Fixing this will take a concerted effort with voices of teachers at the forefront. Teachers are education professionals and we need to be treated like the experts that we are. Do you want to fix the exodus of teachers and encourage young people to enter this profession? We have to start treating education like the necessary profession that it is. Student teaching should be a paid program pairing emerging educators with veteran teachers for longer than the mere weeks that we get. Teachers need to be allotted more time to engage in professional pursuits, from professional development to reflection. It won’t be a quick fix and it will take a shift in understanding the composition of school, but we have to do something. The future of public education has been in a precarious position for longer than we’ve had this governor. This is an entire American problem and there’s no reason Kentucky can’t lead by example as we work to fix our country’s education system.

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