I was a subpar first year teacher and a moderately decent teacher when I left the profession four years later. In my first year teaching I had 3 different preps. The man who taught next door to me had 1 prep, US History, which he had been teaching for more than twenty years. In my second year I again had 3 different preps, all of which were different subjects and grade levels than my first year teaching. Yearbook was one of the classes I “taught” my second year, which was absurd as I had never even been on a yearbook or newspaper staff. It was the blind leading the blind. My third year teaching I had only 2 preps, but they were different than both the first and second years teaching. In short, in my first 3 years as a teacher I taught 8 different subjects and levels. I never taught anything twice.
My experience is not uncommon. New teachers are the lowest individuals on the totem pole. They are most often assigned whatever is leftover in the schedule, which means they are likely to teach a variety of different levels. Sometimes they have a textbook as a guide; sometimes not. They are poorly paid (the proposed $15 an hour minimum wage would give teachers in places such as Huntsville, Alabama a raise), eviscerated in the press and by policymakers, and work long hours. It is no wonder that forty to fifty percent of teachers leave within the first five years of teaching. Being a teacher in the United States is tough. And there isn’t a large pool of students lining up to become a teacher. Enrollment in teacher education programs from 2010 to 2019 dropped in all states. Nine states lost more than 50% of their enrollment. Oklahoma saw the biggest drop in enrollment with 80% less students enrolling in teacher education programs by 2019 than in 2010.
The current and growing teacher shortage has been a topic of consternation for decades. The proposed solutions show a tone deaf understanding of the problems teachers face and a disinterest in investing in education beyond the bare minimum. One of my favorite of these tone deaf policies is teacher housing. In expensive areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, it is difficult for teachers to find affordable housing somewhat near where they work. The San Francisco Bay Area has the dubious honor of having the highest disparity between teacher salaries and rental prices in California. Over the past two decades, school districts have built housing for teachers to provide more affordable rent.
Teaching housing is a contentious issues on multiple fronts. In some areas residents oppose building “affordable” housing for teachers in their suburban neighborhoods. When San Jose Unified who loses 1 in 7 teachers every year proposed building teacher housing, residents took to the internet to sign an online petition opposing it. The originator of the petition sends his child to private school but claims that people pay high prices to live in San Jose for the great schools. As one teacher so aptly put it “Families trust us with their kids from 8 to 3 every day. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the case that they would trust us in their communities.” So, we have the problem that teacher housing is not supported by the communities where the teachers teach plus housing is most often targeted at single teachers. It doesn’t solve the problem of retaining teachers when they want to have families.
More to the point we have little to no evidence that this “solution” attracts or keeps teachers. According to a 2019 article from EdSource, there is no research linking teacher housing to retention. We do know that teacher compensation is linked to retention. In other words we simply have to pay teachers a professional wage. But that requires a real investment. A solution that policy makers are resistant to at all levels.
To attract and retain teachers, we need to dig in with real change:
- Pay a professional wage.
- Make it harder to become a teacher i.e. attract the best and the brightest by making it a competitive field with competitive wages and societal respect of the profession (Finland is a great example of this).
- Support the newest teachers with fewer preps and fewer changes in the first five years. What if instead of giving teachers 4 – 5 preps and changing those preps year to year we supported teachers through easily the hardest years of teaching.
I would like to say I am surprised that policy makers continue to develop “inexpensive” solutions to attracting and retaining teachers, but I am not. It has been clear for decades that the political and business elite like to talk about the importance of education but if it requires them to spend a little bit more money to do so then their real opinion about education becomes apparent.