Want to end the teacher exodus? It starts with a little respect | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

It’s March Madness time again.

But I am not talking about the mayhem engendered by teams of height-gifted college “students” running back and forth on the hardboards in games arranged in a reverse geometric order at various arenas around the country.

I am referring to the madness experienced around this time of year by teachers in our public school system. As I noted in a previous column, March is the time on a school calendar when members of scholastic communities begin looking forward to and planning for the next academic year. In particular, teachers in school systems ask themselves, “Do I want to return to teaching next year?” Typically, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year.

Now here is the madness: In a recent survey by the NEA, “A staggering 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession,” writes Tim Walker, Senior Writer, NEA Today. 55 percent! If you think our educational institutions are in trouble now, image the madness that will occur if half of our public school teachers decide to not come back next September.

Clearly “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” when — hypothetically — half of our public classroom could be teacher-less.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona identifies the source of the stench when he states, “I feel the teacher shortage issue is a symptom of a teacher respect issue, really.”

While Cardona also notes that low pay for teachers contributes to the exodus from classrooms, I believe the lack of respect for teachers and their work is the primary cause of their moving away from our children and from the career to which they initially felt called.

To illustrate this point, New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall writes that “perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20 percent and 47 percent in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century.”

In the same article, Bowdoin College education professor Doris Santoro observes that “teachers are not only burnt out and under compensated, they are also demoralized. They are being asked to do things in the name of teaching that they believe are mis-educational and harmful to students and the profession. What made this work good for them is no longer accessible. That is why we are hearing so many refrains of ‘I’m not leaving the profession, my profession left me.’”

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The disrespect shown toward teachers manifests itself in a number of ways. Of course, there are the customary displays such as when a student spurts the “you can’t tell me what to do” or when an angry, misinformed parent spews the dictum “you can’t tell my kid what to do” over the phone. Teachers become inured to such insolence.

In their book How Did We Get Here?: The Decay of the Teaching Profession, education professors Henry Tran and Douglas A. Smith note that “the root cause of the problem is a longstanding overall lack of respect for teachers and their craft . . . .  In addition, teachers have been experiencing diminishing control over what and how they teach. They are also regularly exposed to a continued tide of disrespectful student behavior and parental hostility, as highlighted by a survey of 15,000 educators that revealed a growing trend of students verbally and physically harassing teachers, as well as parents engaging in online harassment and retaliatory behaviors for teachers simply doing their jobs. This overall lack of respect drives turnover from existing teachers and discourages potential teachers from considering the profession.” 

A prevalent lessening of respect for teachers insinuated itself into the educational system long before today.

Robert Bruno, a professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, reports in Harvard Business Review, “It was then [in 1983, via A Nation at Risk] that a belief in external controls began influencing the industry. In this view, an independent and external body best regulates teachers, in which teachers are part of an accountable and efficient production system. Schools needed to function more like businesses and successfully compete for students.

“To this end, teachers’ work has subsequently been the subject of major restructuring over the past three decades. Teachers are increasingly directed to follow a mandated curriculum, abide by grade level or school district units of study, and follow predetermined lesson plans. In addition, test-based accountability has colonized teaching techniques and objectives, teacher performance evaluations are yoked to student test scores, and teacher training programs are de-emphasized. Teachers also have little influence over professional development content, school-wide organization, or school budget decisions,” he continued.

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“Under these command and control conditions, teaching looks more like automation than imagination. As University of British Columbia professor Wendy Poole noted, ‘teachers’ work, once conceived as requiring high discretion and autonomy, is increasingly reduced to technical-rational conceptions of teaching and teachers are increasingly viewed as technicians.’ Creativity is squeezed out for conformity and teacher autonomy suppressed,” Bruno concluded.

Turning teachers into automatons controlled by political entities far outside the classroom is not an attitude of respect for the individuals or for the learning process.

Elected officials with little or no background in teaching are not the only entities working to undermine the teaching process in our schools.

Reactionary groups such as Moms for Liberty are pushing political agendas that impact on a school teacher’s ability to lead and engage their students in creative, inspiring ways.

Instead of encouraging critical thinking skills in their children, these blimpish coteries are working to strip school curricula of provocative topics, thus limiting what teachers can teach.

Some of their members engage in loathsome activities such as serving as substitute teachers so that they can surveil faculty members who might mention anything they find offensive and contrary to their narrow minded views and “report” them to the authorities. Spying on a group or an individual is not indicative of respect for that group or individual.

We can tame the madness of disrespect that has been compromising the success of our schools; corporately and individually we can build respect for those guiding and helping our children learn, grow intellectually and socially, become contributors to the well being of our communities and nation.

Among other actions to take, we can ensure that teachers are paid wages commensurate with their training and with the expectations placed upon them in our educational system. We can serve as supporters of our teachers, not political imposers, in our classrooms.

We must allow and demand curricula that offer topics that present all views of historical, cultural, and social issues. We should encourage educational programs that allow pupils to question and debate all aspects of themes and concerns. 

We need to return to approaches that promote critical thinking, not robotic recitation. We must erase hideous, ill-conceived test-based curricula and return to ones that allow teachers to devise lessons and activities that meet the needs of the students in their classrooms.

An ultimate expression of respect for teachers is permitting them to do what they were trained to do—to engage each pupil in ways that lead to intellectual, social, and personal growth and maturity.

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge,” said Albert Einstein. Let’s give teachers the esteem that allows them to full Einstein’s observation.

End the madness. Respect our teachers. They mold our children’s futures with their hands.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the PennsylvaniaCapital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Lloyd E. Sheaffer

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