Teacher shortages are predictable
I have a difficult time encouraging young people to enter the teaching profession these days. This was not always the case. I am proud to be a teacher, enjoy my students, feel invigorated by always trying to figure out ways of reaching young minds, and feel satisfied when I can offer counsel to students. Over the years, things have changed. It is not at all the same profession as when I started, close to 30 years ago.
There was an unwritten social contract when I started teaching. I knew, even though I was a math major in college, that I would not start out making as much as my engineer and actuarial counterparts. My starting salary was $20,000 per year—which seemed like a great deal at the time, even though beginning engineers were making $75,000. Our health coverage was top notch. I paid 9 percent of my salary into retirement and expected that, after 30 years, I would be able to retire and continue to have health care. Summers would be a time for recuperating, preparing, and earning a master’s degree. There was a certain security that, after a few years, my job would be protected. Teachers were respected members of society, honored for the work that people think they want to do, but realize is difficult.
Coming into the profession today, many things are vastly different. Starting salary in the CH-UH school district is now around $42,000 (an average increase of around 2.7 percent annually with compounding), although, as of next year, teachers will pay 14 percent of their salary into retirement, as opposed to 6.25 percent for those in social security. Of course, most of our newer teachers are also burdened with enormous student loans. Our health insurance is still top-notch—as everyone’s should be—although, like everyone, we pay more than we did in the past. Teachers have to work for at least 35 years AND be age 60 [to be eligible for retirement benefits]. Retirement health care is not great and it is not cheap—especially if you need to cover a spouse. This forces teachers to stay in the classroom even longer. Summer is spent in endless training courses and professional development, and job security is not at all a given in today’s climate. The biggest difference, however, is how teachers are seen by society.
Teachers today work harder than ever before; are responsible for doing more; have to be able to collect, record, and interpret vast amounts of data to guide their instruction; and are constantly barraged by e-mails with more information to digest and implement. Much of this we did before, but now there is a much higher intensity and demand for instant flexibility. Our students all mattered in the past, but now we are held responsible for our students mastering material, even if they never come to school or don’t do any work.
The evaluation process for teachers still involves classroom observations, but now half of the evaluation is based on how students score on different tests. Although most teachers feel they have some influence on how students do on tests, there is a feeling of helplessness that their “ratings” are based on this data that is filtered through some unknowable formula from the state. Around the country there are court cases protesting this use of “magical thinking” that can identify a teacher as outstanding one year and ineffective the next.
The evaluation system is stressing the profession to the point that about half of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. My observation is that more teachers are leaving the profession even after the first five years. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s Aug. 15 article in The New York Times gives firsthand testimony of teachers who have left teaching, even though they love the profession.
Teaching today is like being in a pressure cooker. There is little relief. Society now blames teachers for everything from the incarceration rate to poverty. We are the scapegoats that the rich and powerful in society have always wanted. Public schools are being destabilized, families and teachers are being blamed for “low test scores,” and the solution must be to make everyone’s life more miserable. Yes, it is difficult to encourage young people to go into education. Teacher shortages being reported around the country are real. Fewer students in universities are preparing to be teachers, so now there will be even more excuses to further de-professionalize teaching. I predict that, if things don’t change, it will become increasingly hard to find teachers to hire—especially in higher poverty districts where state sanctions and punishments are greatest. Why would someone choose to teach in a district where demographics point to a high chance that scores on tests will be low? Low scores translate to lower ratings on evaluations, which will lead to fewer teachers keeping their jobs. This is not because they are bad teachers, but because the odds are stacked against them.
The social contract that was in place when I started in teaching is withering. For most people, the pressure makes it impossible to contemplate a career in teaching. A true teacher shortage is on its way. Who will teach our children then?
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.