Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Culture of Scarcity

By John Moir — July 26, 2005 6 min read
Providing a decent work setting could save money by greatly enhancing school efficiency and maximizing teacher recruitment and retention.

This morning I arrive a few minutes early for my weekly coaching session with one of the beginning teachers I mentor. We often meet in his school’s teachers’ room, and as I wait I eye the yard-sale sofas and mismatched chairs. Fluorescent lights cast flickering shadows over several battered tables. A dozen rolls of butcher paper are stacked along the wall, and a laminator fills the room with the odor of plastic. The round metal foot on one of the legs of my chair is missing, and the chair wobbles.

My beginning teacher enters the room, pushing a supply cart. He doesn’t have a permanent classroom, so he roams the school like a nomad, setting up in other teachers’ rooms during their prep periods. He sits on another wobbly chair and we begin discussing his plans for the week. He has 43 minutes until the bell rings.

As I travel from school to school mentoring teachers, I spend a lot of time in faculty lounges like this one. These drab rooms embody the culture of scarcity that pervades the teaching profession. Many of us don’t have decent facilities or basic supplies. We’re inundated with noncurricular tasks that don’t leave us enough time to do our best teaching or to collaborate with colleagues. And most of us don’t feel empowered to change the poor working conditions that erode the effectiveness of everyone in a school.

The good news for beginning teachers is the proliferation of mentoring programs that can make a huge difference in reversing the alarmingly high attrition rate among novices. But I fear that the efforts of even the best mentoring programs are undermined by the hardscrabble work environments that plague our vulnerable new teachers. My mentees routinely end up in their schools’ worst classrooms, without adequate supplies. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of their troubles. They often have to prepare for too many subject areas and are given the most challenging students to teach. And, eager to make a good impression, they are easy marks for those offering the “opportunity” to take on time-consuming extracurricular activities shunned by veterans.

Recognizing how difficult working conditions weigh heavily against the success of our new teachers, mentors like myself have lobbied school administrators and union officials for change. When we ask education leaders to design an entry-level job description that intentionally lightens the load for novice teachers, they nod their heads in agreement but look at us in discomfort. We’re talking about the elephant in the room: the teaching profession’s paucity of resources that forces newcomers to endure a trial-by-fire initiation and hampers veterans throughout their careers. New teachers struggle during their early years to climb a few rungs up the seniority ladder in hopes of making their jobs easier. But they find themselves in a culture where scarcity is the norm. We get used to having little, we make do, we remain silent.

So what seems like a reasonable proposal—to create an easier transition into teaching—produces mostly inertia from the veteran teachers who themselves have suffered through the same debilitating system. While veterans are sympathetic to the plight of new teachers, they have paid their dues. Who can blame them for not wanting to give up some of the perks they’ve cobbled together? It’s hard to be generous when there isn’t much to give.

Inadequate working conditions cost schools dearly. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics on teacher attrition and mobility show the toll taken on our nation’s schools. The NCES survey in 2000-01 found that 15 percent of all public school teachers that year either moved to other schools or left the profession. Among those who changed schools, a whopping 70 percent cited dissatisfaction with workplace conditions or lack of support from administrators.

Individual states are tackling the problem with their own data collection and initiatives. For example, both North and South Carolina have conducted comprehensive working-condition surveys of nearly 50,000 teachers and principals. The latest results, issued in March of this year, establish a link between working conditions and difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers. It should be no surprise that the data also indicate good working conditions are an important predictor of student success. “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions,” said Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina.

What’s the point of having a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom if teachers are hamstrung by underperforming working conditions?

Although I work on the opposite side of the continent, a survey of teachers in my home state of California would no doubt produce similar results. The culture of scarcity assumes that teachers will accept the unacceptable. For many years, I taught at a school where there wasn’t a place on campus to have a private phone conversation with a parent. Imagine any other professional—an accountant, a lawyer, a city planner—without access to a phone.

Students notice the condition of their schools, too. Before we utter our first words of welcome at the opening of the school year, the appearance of a school and the resources it offers convey a powerful message about how much a community values—or doesn’t value—education. Some students are taking matters into their own hands. Just this spring, San Francisco students were protesting their schools’ dilapidated bathrooms.

The federal No Child Left Behind law stipulates that every classroom must have a “highly qualified” teacher. But what’s the point if teachers are hamstrung by underperforming working conditions? Providing a decent work setting is a big budget item, but in the long run ending the culture of scarcity could save money by greatly enhancing school efficiency and maximizing teacher recruitment and retention.

Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who configure education budgets are often far removed from the day-to-day realities of schools, a fact that works to perpetuate this tired but intractable system. Decisionmakers in distant, well-equipped offices don’t face such challenges as preparing for the day’s lessons while worrying that there isn’t enough paper for the copy machine.

Not surprisingly, the worst working conditions are found in the poorest neighborhoods. A lawsuit settled last year in the California courts, Williams v. State of California, has put the spotlight on the appalling state of public schools in low-income communities, where overcrowded, rundown facilities and inadequate supplies are the norm. To staff such schools, districts use a high percentage of noncredentialed teachers and long-term substitutes. In America today, the students with the greatest need attend the worst schools.

After meeting with this new teacher, I drive to my next appointment fantasizing about a movement to change the culture of scarcity. I imagine a national initiative to create the conditions needed for student success. It would include these basics:

  • Dedicated time for teachers to plan and collaborate with colleagues;
  • Suitable resources and an inviting work environment;
  • Meaningful professional development; and
  • Frequent opportunities for teachers to take on decisionmaking responsibilities and school leadership roles.
  • I imagine how different it would be to meet with my new teacher in a fully functioning school. I would go directly to his permanent classroom, well stocked with teaching supplies. He’d have back-to-back prep periods, and we would spend part of the second one co-teaching a lesson with a colleague. After our meeting, we’d have a cup of coffee in a teachers’ room that inspires pride and confidence. None of the chairs would wobble. Then I’d leave for my next meeting, thinking of how the entire organization of this school proclaimed a simple message: Education matters.

    Events

    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Sponsor
    Student Well-Being Webinar
    A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
    We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
    Content provided by BD
    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Sponsor
    Teaching Webinar
    Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
    Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
    Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Sponsor
    Reading & Literacy Webinar
    Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
    When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
    Content provided by PDX Reading

    EdWeek Top School Jobs

    Teacher Jobs
    Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
    View Jobs
    Principal Jobs
    Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
    View Jobs
    Administrator Jobs
    Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
    View Jobs
    Support Staff Jobs
    Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
    View Jobs

    Read Next

    School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
    A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
    Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
    2 min read
    David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
    David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP
    School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
    Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
    Judith Browne Dianis
    4 min read
    Image of lights on police cruiser
    Getty
    School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
    In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

    School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
    Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
    4 min read
    Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
    Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
    David Zalubowski/AP