Recruitment & Retention Opinion

To Fix Teacher Shortages, First Understand What They Are

By Teaching Ahead Contributor — October 13, 2015 4 min read
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This is the second piece of a five-part conversation on the teacher supply.

Xian Franzinger Barrett

To understand how to fix teacher shortages, we must understand what they are and what causes them.

Teacher shortages come in part from a lack of candidates interested in teaching in highly demanding settings and, even moreso, from an inability to retain teachers in those settings. We also must acknowledge the double shortage in segregated settings, where students of color are denied consistent educators and denied educators who share their race or ethnic background.

I would argue that retention must be the greater focus as, in many high-need schools, with teacher attrition greater than 50 percent over five years, getting more candidates would hardly affect the problem.

Many top-down education reforms to address teacher quality only exacerbate this situation by focusing teachers on areas that are unhelpful to their students. For every teacher who is pushed out by tougher, nonsensical evaluation systems, there are a dozen who leave due to toxic stress caused by these systems and the environment we teach in.

Once we acknowledge this, we can begin to heal toward solutions in this area. Here are a few:

1) Allow communities, students, parents, and educators the agency to self-determine our own definitions of success.

For me, success is much larger than a test score, college success, or a job in the future. Effective teaching means growing in students the tools they’ll need to address the injustice they face daily in our society. It can be discouraging to teach students academic skills only to see them collapse in college when they face the deep racism present in most institutions of high education. It brings me back energized each day knowing that my students are not just learning to endure injustice; they are learning to destroy it.

I develop my own professional development program that is rich in affinity and targets specific skills that help me best serve my students. We need to encourage this rather than the common one-size-fits-all professional development that helps one advance quickly in Candy Crush, but does little for our students.

2) Build strong induction programs targeting and effectively preparing candidates who are most likely to stay in our communities.

I do this on a small scale by taking on student teachers of color as often as possible and mentoring early career teachers. I push them to tackle issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation and language in their practicum so they are prepared to teach on these issues in their own classrooms. Unfortunately, the recent practice of grading universities on their students’ growth scores actively discourages teacher-prep programs from taking on the best candidates for teaching. Additionally, the focus on test scores has many principals in hard-to-staff schools refusing student teaching candidates altogether. To make this successful at scale, we would need to reward these schools when they take on student teachers—especially of color—and train them effectively. We would also need to end “color blind” efforts to “raise the bar,” which usually have a very narrow definition of quality and end up pushing teachers of color out of the profession.

3) Shift accountability for school climate from classroom teachers to administrators and district leadership.

In Chicago, we see high attrition due to catastrophic budgetary and facilities decisions made by the 7 CEO regimes (we don’t have superintendents or an elected school board) we’ve had in the last 6 years. They’ve turned around the same schools multiple times, they’ve cut libraries from many schools, and they haven’t been able to deliver teacher evaluations until far into the next year in both years of the new system. People excel when they are responsible for their own domain of influence. When we are held accountable for others’ failures, we tend to become disillusioned or leave.

Teacher shortages are merely symptoms of the same problems that drive inequity in our society in general. It is harder to be a teacher in a high-poverty area; it takes a higher level of expertise to teach students of color in an oppressive society; it is harder to stay a teacher in these settings.

Our society attempts to make up for its own institutional failings by placing all of that responsibility on educators, while blocking attempts by parents, students, and educators to address those failings. It is my belief that through the changes outlined above, traditionally underserved students can have access to consistent educators who inspire and empower them as is their basic human right.

Xian Franzinger Barrett teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies and language arts in Brighton Park, Chicago. He was a founding member of #EduColor and CORE, a social justice union caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union. He was ranked #5 in the universe for education policy on social media by a completely invalid and unreliable measure.

Read more from this roundtable discussion on teacher recruitment and retention.

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