To Curb The Teacher Shortage, We Need To Think Bigger About The Problem
A Forbes piece by Phyllis Lockett
In recent weeks, the nation turned its eyes to my hometown of Chicago, as 21,000 teachers walked out on strike. It’s an image we’ve grown used to: Whether it’s Los Angeles, Oklahoma or West Virginia, teachers are making it clear they need additional support to do the job we ask of them.
Nationally, 44% of new teachers leave the field within five years—a higher number than ever before. From 2011 to 2016, enrollment in teacher preparation programs fell by 35%. And as the workforce shrinks, those who stay shoulder additional burdens: Data suggests teachers spend an average of $459 of their own money a year on supplies, with teachers in high-poverty schools spending even more. Eighteen percent work a second job. For years now, we’ve asked our teachers to do more with less. We’ve got to change that.
Within this backdrop, I think about teachers like Jennifer Fedrick. Jennifer teaches fifth grade at George Washington Elementary School on Chicago’s East Side. Throughout her career, she has been widely recognized by colleagues and peers here as remarkable—a teacher who truly cares about her students, and who makes the classroom a place to grow.
Two years ago, however, Jennifer was on the verge of enrolling in nursing school. After teaching 20 years, she was ready to abandon the profession.
Why? If you asked her, you would hear about being told what to do and when to do it; about not getting the space to try and fail; about kids forced to focus on the same content at the same time, even when their skills spanned multiple grades.
As Jennifer said to us recently: “I didn’t feel like I was making a difference anymore. I like to help people, and to me, nursing seemed like a better opportunity to help people.”
For as much we talk about the negatives of a one-size-fits-all classroom model for students, we rarely cover how stressful and dissatisfying it is to teach within one. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most teachers are like Jennifer: They enter the profession to make a difference. When we force educators to teach toward uniformity, we sap them of the motivation, passion and personal connection they need to drive strong learning experiences.
The one-size-fits-all model leads inevitably to a stale, constricting dynamic between teachers and administrators. In most schools across the country, teachers are not rewarded for the skills—like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity—that are increasingly valued in the broader world of work. We need them to foster these skills in our learners but we don’t give them the opportunity to exercise them in their own careers. They aren’t given the space to innovate, or the autonomy to adapt to and engage individual learners. Instead, by the design of our traditional model, they’re forced to teach toward standardized tests and mythical “average” students.
The Illinois State Board of Education recently reported that there were more than 1,400 unfilled teaching positions in 2018, and projected that at least 20,000 more educators will be needed by 2020. Nationally it’s no better, with the Economic Policy Institute forecasting a national teacher shortage of at least 200,000 by 2025. The crisis is real, and growing.
Recent statistics from the Learning Policy Institute list poor job satisfaction as the number one reason teachers provide for leaving the profession—ahead of personal reasons, desire to pursue another career and the often-cited compensation issues. Salary, of course, is a major component of job satisfaction, but if we’re going to revitalize American education and avoid a full-blown teacher crisis, we will need to think bigger about the problem. In the traditional classroom model, educators like Jennifer are not supported to do what they set out to do, or treated like the leaders they can be.
Jennifer, however, changed her mind about leaving education after her school started thinking differently about teaching and learning. Starting in 2018, she and her colleagues at George Washington worked to deconstruct the factory-style model, piloting strategies and tools to help personalize instruction around individual students. The most successful shifts toward personalized learning work when teachers lead the change, and for Jennifer, the end of the traditional classroom came hand-in-hand with a fundamentally altered workplace dynamic. She was empowered to take risks, refine new ideas with colleagues and learn and apply learning science from research. In the process, she experienced a transformation of her teaching. With that came a renewed passion for her profession.
The reality is that we have already lost thousands of Jennifer Fedricks. The more-pressing reality is that if we don’t act fast, we’re set to lose thousands more. As we consider how we attract and retain the talents of educators, we will need to think bigger than debates over class size, salary and school support staff. Fundamental transformation of the entire one-size-fits-all model is what will be required to develop a more powerful, satisfied profession—one in which educators are enabled as design thinkers. If we don’t give teachers the chance to exercise and build upon their talents, our kids will miss the same opportunity.