By James E. Ford
Our nation’s teachers are the infrastructure of this republic. Like water pipelines, roads, and bridges their purpose is that of the common good.
Teacher Appreciation Week has come and gone once again. For a moment our country paused to pay tribute to its educators. Teachers were adorned with chocolates, gift cards and thank yous from every direction for being part of the world’s most underrated and noble profession. It’s the least we could do as a society, after all.
One of my teacher-buddies, in typical sarcastic fashion, sent me a text on Teacher Appreciation Day that read, “I wonder when Doctor or Lawyer Appreciation Week is?” This was, of course, a rhetorical question. We don’t feel the need to go out of our way to recognize other prestigious occupations because they are already valued in a myriad of ways. My friend wasn’t being an ingrate. He was being honest.
The perceived lack of genuine appreciation that teachers feel is a major contributing factor to the looming teacher shortage. Teaching is losing its luster, and this shift in perspective is motivated almost entirely by the diminishing perceptions surrounding the work.
People don’t want to teach anymore, and they have plenty of reasons to feel this way.
Teaching has become so delegitimized in recent years that the profession is no longer viewed as a viable career. The problem starts at the beginning of the pipeline. Fewer high school graduates are interested in pursuing teaching, dropping by 3% since 2010. Millennials (who’ve now overtaken the Baby Boomers as the largest generational group) view the profession as one occupied by individuals of mediocre ability, and no one wants to join that club. So they opt for more lucrative and outwardly rewarding vocations. Nowhere is this opinion more accepted than the decreased enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the country, sliding 35% in a five-year span.
In my own state of North Carolina, colleges of education have seen a 30% decline in the same time period. For those within the profession, reforms focused on accountability -- relying almost exclusively on testing -- have worn teachers down. Large numbers of teachers either leave the state or the profession altogether. On top of all this, teacher pay continues to lag beneath the critical importance of the work. Although money isn’t everything, it serves as confirmation that teachers simply aren’t a priority. The public believe they owe us bagels once a year, but forget paying us as professionals.
The natural question we should all be asking ourselves is, “How could this be?” Particularly, when polls routinely identify teaching as one of the most trusted positions. People respect teachers, but there is a clear gap between how we feel about them and how we treat the very people we entrust with educating our nation.
Put simply, we are used to it, comfortable with our contradictory view of the profession. We have come to accept teachers as self-sacrificial gluttons for punishment. “God bless them because what they do is so important,” we say. We may not recognize it, but there is a stigma attached to this view of the profession, and it is etched into our societal psyche. Teachers have become the noble peasants; the distinguished paupers; and the poor, righteous sufferers. Even teachers wear this air of martyrdom by continuing to confess how we “didn’t become a teacher to get rich or famous.”
The teacher shortage may not yet be at crisis-level, but this will be the inevitable outcome if we don’t restore respectability to the craft. The country’s best and brightest will continue to pass over a career of significant impact to pursue more innovative and materially prosperous alternatives.
Our nation’s teachers are the infrastructure of this republic. Like water pipelines, roads, and bridges their purpose is that of the common good. When they do their job, it permits every other aspect of our society to function properly. But this isn’t reflected in their level of appreciation. Much like the public works mentioned, if necessary attention isn’t paid to the support and maintenance of this system, all of us are made to suffer as a result. Years of neglecting to address the root causes of the teacher shortage and will have a deleterious effect on our students and society at large if we don’t change course.
I spent an entire year as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year, representing this most honorable line of work. No matter who I was speaking in front of, I always tried to wrap teaching in a narrative that really captured its gravitational pull on the rest of the world. “We are the one profession that every other profession is dependent upon,” I’d say. “We support economies, increase safety, serve as the bedrock of a self-governing society and ensure our legacy as a nation lives on.”
Don’t get me wrong, candies and warm sentiments are nice. But, really, they are the least we can do.
James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year. He serves as Program Director for the Public School Forum of North Carolina and lives in Charlotte.
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