Teachers want their voices heard in policy decisions that affect the classroom, and they want the flexibility to make decisions that they think are best for their students—flexibility they don’t often have now. Still, they see hope in the future of the profession.
These themes emerged in two panels about teacher morale, retention, and the future of the profession at SXSW EDU this week in Austin.
The discussions come after a difficult few years for teachers, as they have faced the stress of pandemic schooling and a wave of legislation restricting how they can discuss certain topics in the classroom.
Recent surveys of teachers show that many are burned out and frustrated.
National data show that salaries are a big part of the equation.
“Money does matter. Obviously, people get a job to support themselves,” said Stephanie Stoebe, a 4th grade language arts and social studies teacher in Round Rock ISD a district in the Austin area.
But there are other factors that make a difference too, she said—family and medical benefits, feeling like their voices are heard, and crucially, a supportive work environment.
Panelists also discussed a challenge that predates the pandemic—ongoing efforts to attract and retain educators of color, and specifically Black teachers, in a profession that’s majority-white.
“It’s so important to see Black men in roles we typically do not see. To stand up in front of our students and say, ‘this is what you can be,’” said Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, and now director of teacher and leader pathways with the Richmond Public Schools in Virginia.
‘Advocacy is part of our job’
In a panel called “5 Year Problem: Keeping Teachers in the Classroom,” Texas educators talked about how education policy created without teacher input often places unreasonable burdens on educators—and may not be as effective as a result.
“We need to make sure we stop some of these unfunded mandates,” said Stoebe. She referenced HB 4545, a Texas law that requires additional hours of instruction for students who don’t pass state tests. But the law doesn’t provide additional resources for teachers who have to provide that instruction, which could be required for many or most of the students in the class.
“There was no financial support, there was no time compensation,” Stoebe said.
Issues like this can catalyze teachers’ interest in education policy, said JoLisa Hoover, a teacher specialist at Raise Your Hand Texas, an organization that engages teachers in education advocacy.
“Advocacy is part of our job,” Hoover said. “It’s what we do for our students, and it’s what we have to do for ourselves as well.”
Robinson, the former teacher of the year, recently left the classroom. In a panel with two other former teachers of the year this afternoon, he talked about his new role at the district level in Richmond Public Schools, where he tries to push for policies that will better support and attract teachers of color.
Now, he has “hard conversations” with institutions of higher education and other teacher preparation programs, Robinson said.
“Quite honestly, I am not liked in some of these circles. I’m going to stand up and say, ‘that is not right. How do you expect to diversify this if you’re not catering to the needs of a diverse community?’”
He offered teacher residencies as an example. Many residency models require recent graduates or people already in the workforce to do a year or more of unpaid work. “I don’t know many people of color, or people who don’t come from a background of privilege, who can take an unpaid year to become a teacher,” Robinson said.
In Richmond, Robinson worked on a solution. The district created a teacher residency program, in partnership with two historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia, with the goal of preparing more Black male teachers and other male teachers of color.
Teachers see reasons for hope
Despite the entrenched challenges in the profession, the teachers and former teachers who spoke still see hope in public education.
Robinson said he has faith in people who have stood up for children’s rights, even when the path to do so was difficult. He cited historical examples—like those who taught Black children to read during slavery.
But he also referenced some of the stances teachers are taking today. “I have faith in our LGBTQ teachers who say, ‘No, you’re not going to pass these kinds of laws on us,” Robinson said, referring to the wave of state legislation restricting how teachers can discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom.
“I have faith in the people who will resist what is wrong,” Robinson said.
Kurt Russell, the 2022 National Teacher of the Year, said his students give him hope.
Russell said he is “so intentional” about making sure that students see themselves in the classroom—and that doing so can have transformative results for the children in his classes.
He told the story of one student who he had in two separate class periods: a 1st period general U.S. history course, and a 4th period African American history course. The student, who wasn’t engaged at all in the first class, couldn’t stop raising his hand to participate in the African American history course.
“That student showed what a single story could do to you,” Russell said. When the student got to learn about the events of American history from another perspective he could relate to—a second story—he was much more interested in the coursework.
In states across the country, school district leaders and teachers are facing pushback for lessons that center minoritized perspectives in history. But Russell was adamant that every student should be able to see themselves in the curriculum.
“We live in a diverse society. Curriculum, society, in my opinion, has to mirror one another. You cannot have young learners leave your classroom without having specific knowledge,” he said. “What my students are gaining from the classes is relevant for them outside of the classroom.”