Nora de la Cour is a high school social worker and a former teacher. In this article, which appeared in Jacobin, she provides a trenchant overview of the strains and pressures that drive dedicated teachers away from a profession they love.
This school year has been marked by a flood of reports of dire school staffing shortages, including stories about schools shutting down because there are simply not enough adults in the building to keep kids safe. The seemingly ubiquitous theme of educators resigning mid-year has even become its own TikTok genre.
Kristin Colucci, who teaches English in Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts, described the situation at her high school to Jacobin: “One teacher quit, another retired, and there have been no teachers assigned to those classes. Students are literally sitting there by themselves. The message being sent: the class and the students are not worthy of this education.”
Edu-conomists who warn against teacher pay increases like to point out that shortages are district-specific and that overall teacher turnover may actually be lower right now than in recent years. That’s not saying much.
Teacher turnover has been on the rise in the United States since the mid-1980s. In the last decade, we’ve seen a growing crisis of teacher vacancies and declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Due to racialized problems like high student debt and poor working conditions, people who are not white are less likely to enter the profession and more likely to leave it, meaning students are deprived of the significant benefits of exposure to a diverse teaching workforce.
Shortages of qualified teachers interfere with learning, inflicting outsize harm on special education students and students in high-poverty districts and racially isolated schools. But the hardships that disproportionately impact marginalized groups of students and teachers are indicative of broad underlying ills that make it harder for all kids to experience the learning conditions they deserve.
When educators accumulate years on the job, they acquire invaluable knowledge about how to gain students’ respect and make high-level scholarship possible. Unfortunately, circumstances stemming from chronic disinvestment and a corporate reform model that punishes poverty make it untenable for many teachers to remain in the classroom.
Teaching is a hard job. Planning and executing lessons that will motivate students with divergent interests and skill sets takes a great deal of time, research, and imagination. Then there’s the labor of evaluating and thoughtfully responding to work from up to ninety students across multiple different classes, providing tailored instruction for English learners and special education students, building rapport with shy or angry kids, fairly dividing one’s attention, maintaining order and ensuring safety, collaborating with colleagues and families, and staying abreast of new developments in the subjects one teaches and the field of education generally.
Nevertheless, many teachers are eager to meet these challenges. The very fact that anyone pursues teaching when, with comparable education, they can earn significantly more money in other fields demonstrates that people are willing to give up a great deal because they are drawn to the vocation of nurturing young minds.
Every step of the way, teachers are prevented from actually performing their vocation.
The trouble is that, at every step of the way, teachers are prevented from actually performing this vocation. Their “other duties as assigned” include playing nonteaching roles like bus and lunch cop, because districts are unable or unwilling to hire more staff. Teachers are required to attend meetings at which they playicebreaker games and watch clips of cartoon animals so their administrators can get credit for giving professional development. They may have a single forty-minute preparation period in which to plan and grade for four or five different classes (which is laughable). But they frequently find they can’t use that time for planning and grading because paperwork is piled on them, often at the last minute. In addition to myriad clerical and administrative tasks, they must document instructional interventions and, at many schools, submit detailed weekly lesson plans designed to satisfy their bosses’ checklists rather than excite and challenge learners.
The teacher exodus has coincided with the rise of a culture of micromanagement, as government presses administrators to watch teachers, measure their output, collect data about them, and see if they meet goals. District leaders, state leaders, federal leaders send teachers a demoralizing message: we don’t trust you. If no one watches, you might be a shirker. If kids get low test scores, it’s not because they were absent or didn’t do their homework, but because they have bad teachers. You.
All that data collection moves up the chain of command, to be reviewed by someone who never was a teacher.
I became an English teacher because I wanted to help students explore thrilling story-worlds, weave airtight arguments, and unravel sophistical rhetoric. Like an alarming number of my peers, I left the profession after just five years, finding I wasn’t allowed to teach in a way that could inspire my students. Instead of facilitating deep inquiry and lively debate, I was forced to make rushed deposits of scripted curriculum in order to meet standards written by Bill and Melinda Gates–funded reformers.
Like an alarming number of my peers, I left the profession because I wasn’t allowed to teach in a way that could inspire my students.
I was willing to work weekends and ten-hour weekdays for shabby pay in the service of my students — but not in the service of my administrator’s need to convince her bosses we’d “covered” RI.11-12.1 through SL.11-12.6. I was told it didn’t matter if my classes only got to experience fiction through decontextualized excerpts; my job was to “teach the standard, not the book.” But I wanted to teach the books: whole, breathing texts can fascinate young people and ignite their genius. State standards grids make them yawn and pull out their phones, or boil over with justified indignation.
The pressure to raise test scores has undermined teaching and learning. It has produced ”play deprivation,” which is not developmentally appropriate and leads to students acting out. Over-testing has driven joy out of the classroom.
President Joe Biden’s Department of Education could address this problem by attempting to follow through on Biden’s campaign commitment to end the use of standardized testing in public schools. Instead, the department has opted for business as usual. Never mind that under corporate education reform and state disinvestment, business as usual has been steadily draining K-12 classrooms of the vibrant, beautiful things that make students and teachers want to wake up in the morning and come to school.
De la Cour insists that the teaching profession could be revived and restored. She summarizes the few but vital steps that are necessary to restore the dignity and prestige of teaching.
Open the link to find out what they are.