The teacher shortage is rapidly approaching a crisis level. It will take years or decades to undo the damage caused to public education and our profession. While teachers have known about the impending crisis for years, others outside the profession are starting to notice. When we look at the teacher attrition crisis, there is more to it that non-educators won’t realize.
We know the immediate symptoms of the crisis. Empty classrooms that need to be filled with substitutes. There’s also a substitute shortage, so sometimes the classes are watched by other teachers in the building. In some schools this looks like “collapsed” classes where students from one class are spread out to surrounding classrooms. Some classes are over the legal cap size. Some elementary students will spend the majority of their day with a substitute while the vacancies persist. The lasting educational damage of this will be catastrophic for some children.
What else does the teacher shortage look like?
It looks like a lack of supervision that precipitates disruptive, sometimes violent behavior. While some members of the media are quick to lambaste public school classrooms as “war zones,” no one is pointing out how the teacher shortage is causing this. In a building with multiple vacancies and a shortage of substitutes, students lack the stability and supervision necessary to support good educational outcomes. In the Iroquois Incident, everyone was quick to point at the parents, the child in question, and a number of other factors. Educators know that schools with a high teacher turnover rate struggle with school climate and culture. The teacher shortage causes these issues, and consequently these issues contribute to teachers leaving the profession.
It looks like a lack of extracurricular activities. Coaching is hard and time consuming. In schools with a higher amount of early career educators, it can be difficult to find anyone to coach various teams. Being a beginning teacher is already difficult and time-exhaustive. Adding into the mix an extracurricular can be impossible, or worse, lead to a faster burnout and another young teacher leaving the profession.
It looks like a lack of traditions. When your school is constantly losing its staff, the staff memory for traditions leaves with them. Can you imagine Manual and Male without their prolific spirit weeks as they prepare for their football showdowns? Of course not. They don’t have the high staff turnover that other schools in JCPS have. There is at least one high school that didn’t have a pep rally purely because there wasn’t a teacher there to lead it. Can you imagine being a senior at that school?
It looks like a lack of mentors. Teaching is a sharing profession. It does not occur to us to be competitive against each other. It does not occur to us to be cutthroat and vicious. Teachers are, by nature, altruistic. We thrive on helping others. When I first began teaching, other teachers helped with classroom furniture and supplies. They helped me build lesson plans and resource banks. They helped me know when to leave the building and when it was okay to not take that stack of essays with me. In schools with high turnover, these mentors don’t exist. Or they do, but instead of a team helping a singular new teacher, it’s a singular veteran helping a mass of young teachers.
It looks like a lack of advocates. Teaching is hard. Being a political advocate for teaching makes it immensely harder. As we continue to hemorrhage teachers from our profession, we will continue to lose the best advocates our children have. Being active in our union can be time-consuming, but it is necessary for our survival. In buildings with a high turnover, it can be difficult to find someone to take up the task of representing members in the building.
The causes of the teacher shortage are many and varied. It wasn’t one policy or person who did this. The effects are vast and difficult to counteract. It will take a concerted effort on the part of policymakers to listen to educators and work with us for the future of public education. Our children need public education. Kentucky needs public education.