Fifty years ago this month, no doubt before some of you were born, I started the sixth grade at Belvedere Elementary School in Fairfax. My teacher, Mrs. Samis, was something of a force of nature. A bit of a disciplinarian, she knew all there was to know about classroom management, but most of all, she was a passionate teacher. It showed — her energy and enthusiasm was contagious, and I liked her tremendously. She would turn out to be my favorite teacher of all time. She delighted in her work and she enjoyed watching us learn and grow. That, my friends, is teaching.
However, that was 1969. In a few months we will be starting the third decade of the 21st century and recruiting and retaining good teachers, people like Mrs. Samis, has become one of public education’s most challenging problems.
So, why do we have trouble keeping and retaining good teachers? This is not a passing concern, it’s been a serious problem for years, and has now become an educational crisis. Teacher turnover rates all over our region, nationally as well, have long been in the double digits. That’s something new. Of course, people leave teaching for all sorts of reasons, such as retirement, a military spouse being transferred, or in a not uncommon decision, taking time off to raise a family. But these reasons have been around for a long time. The core of our current dilemma is a bit more complex.
One reason is that teacher pay just doesn’t keep up with the economy. Sometimes it’s decidedly local. Teachers in Stafford have left the county schools to work in a nearby higher paying school systems. A recent pay increase helped, but it was by no means the long-term solution that’s needed. Others leave teaching entirely because the pay just doesn’t cover the bills. It’s as simple as that. It’s hard to be a head of household and live on a teacher’s salary. Some of the most passionate teachers, those who don’t want to leave teaching, but can’t make ends meet, get part time jobs. This is a problem that could be fixed. We raise pay, and yes, the problem will be at least partially addressed. But, local governing boards don’t like to tell their constituents that maintaining a good school system, with quality teachers, costs money. So, while they talk a good game about teacher pay, particularly on the campaign trail, when it comes time to vote for the additional funds, which means raising taxes, they tend to lose their nerve.
There is also, and this is a touchy subject, an inherent sexism when it comes to how we treat teachers. For years I rejected this interpretation of the problem, but, looking at the history of teacher pay, it’s almost inescapable. Teaching has always been dominated by women. That’s changed a bit, but by far, most elementary school, middle school and high school teachers are female. In local and state government, which has historically been dominated by men, there was, unsaid perhaps, but true just the same, a feeling that because most teachers are women, you don’t have to pay them as much. This was the case 100 years ago and it still is today
There is also the workplace. The teacher workplace isn’t what it once was. When I was in school and did something I shouldn’t, yes, I feared the wrath of my teacher, but more than that, I feared what my parents would do if I had to carry home a note. Or, even worse, if my teacher called my parents. That was one thing educators could count on in those days. Parents would actively support the teacher. That’s changed. As I found serving on the school board, the number of parents who take the opposite approach is frightening and administrators it seems rarely have the guts to back their teachers in these situations.
Other reasons are a little more subtle. Principals, the CEO of the school if you will, aren’t often judged on how many good teachers they retain. They’re judged on the state’s Standards of Learning scores. Its “teach to the test” or else. That’s the measure of success the school system uses for its principals. This leads to an inherently short-term approach to managing the school with little attention paid to developing and encouraging teachers. New teachers, more often than not, are thrown in at the deep end of the pool. Their retention rate is abysmal. Also, there are the non-educational demands of the job. Paperwork, surveys, reports and the like, now eat up as much as 15% of a teacher’s workload. Many teachers, due to a shortage of educators, report having to forego their planning periods, and often find themselves up to the wee hours grading papers.
Too much work, not enough support from parents and administrators, too much teaching to the test, not enough guidance and help for new teachers, less than optimal working conditions, and poor pay. No wonder so many good teachers don’t make education a career.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.