Changing the Teaching Profession in the Midst of a Storm

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From depictions in Hollywood to our own schools, many educators we know are just born teachers. We love the profession so much that we cannot imagine doing any other job. But my son’s journey to becoming a teacher illustrates a horrifying reality. Our great profession is in peril. The turbulence that surrounds teaching is creating a disturbance that must be addressed.

My son is a born teacher. Intelligent and kind, patient and passionate, he will be a gift to all of his future students and their families. He is the only person I have ever known who would be equally effective at any grade level: elementary, middle, or high school. Upon starting college, he struggled to find a major that met his interests and talents. In a society that churns out business majors and medical professionals but sees a drought of educators, there was little encouragement for education majors. After my son changed his major multiple times, I finally told him that he should consider becoming a teacher. He is now an elementary education major at Michigan State University. Why didn’t he originally accept his destiny? He saw the climate created by the bashing of the profession, and he also saw how hard I work.

We’ve all seen the statistics. From 2009 to 2014, there was a 35 percent decline in enrollment in teacher-preparation programs. This equates to a decrease of 240,000 potential teachers in those five years. These numbers do not include the high number of teachers who leave the profession in their first five years of teaching. While some suggest it could be as high as 40 to 50 percent, a study by the U.S. Department of Education suggests it is approximately 17 percent. Add this to the number who retire every year, and you can see the potential storm on the horizon. This zonal flow is affecting the entire profession, but the impact on high-needs areas will be cataclysmic.

And as telecommunications professor Edward Castronova said, “Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others. I see a hurricane coming.” So do I. This hurricane will bring devastation.

Rather than merely lament the reality or rehash the potential causes of this atmospheric disturbance, let’s focus on what we, as educators and lovers of the profession, can do to brace ourselves for impact and shore up public education to weather this storm:

Be positive.

While the swirling negativity can sadden even the most positive, it is important to remember what we love most about the profession—our students. Every day we work incredibly hard to inspire and instruct our students so that they can be successful. Our influence on them is incredible. I find that no matter what else is going on, the minute I am in the classroom with my students, none of that matters. We are positive for them and need to remember to show that positivity for future teachers, too.

Keep your students who are interested in being teachers on your radar. Encourage, rather than dissuade, them. We need great teachers, so spark that interest and talent in your own students by showing them you love what you do. Encourage them to engage with you in changing policy and public perception to match the importance of the job. If your school does not have a program for future educators, create a club to welcome them.

Open your classroom to student teachers and college students who are interested in teaching, and when you are with them, speak of the positives of the job. We all have bad days or troubling issues, but these should be tempered with reminding ourselves and others of the importance and benefits of the job. Make it a habit to use social media to expound on the positives of the profession rather than feeding into the negativity. Don’t get stuck like Eeyore under a gloomy overcast of teacher bashing. It is as bad for you as it is for future teachers.

Get involved with teacher-preparation programs.

Under the new federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, there may be changes to teacher-preparation programs, including giving students more time to serve in residency-style positions under the mentoring of teachers. Volunteer with education colleges in your area. Serve as a guest lecturer to give education majors a practitioner point-of-view (remembering to be positive). Offer the opportunity for college students to observe your class and work with students. Accept student teachers, and help prepare and nurture the next generation of teachers.

Promote and support new teachers.

Teaching can be an alienating profession. Despite being with students all day long, many of us do not get many opportunities to talk to other adults. For those who have been in the profession a long time and have fostered professional friendships, we have the ability to lean on each other and get advice when needed. If you work in a large school and especially if you were hired with a large number of other teachers who naturally became friends and allies with shared experiences, you may have a built-in village of colleagues. Not everyone is that fortunate. Reach out to new teachers in your building and district. Start a committee, separate from any required mentor programs, to support new teachers. Have regular meetings with these teachers so they develop relationships with each other and with experienced teachers. In my district, this was teacher-driven and supported through the union. This is a great way for new teachers to see that the union supports teachers in more ways than just working conditions and salary.

While there is often little or no time during the day to connect with new teachers, use technology to connect virtually. The Center for Teaching Quality and the National Education Association (through its EdCommunities resources) have online platforms that allow teachers from across the country and around the world to engage in support and promotion of the profession. In the era of “gotcha” evaluations (something ESSA should help alleviate), we need to work together more than ever to ensure the very survival of the profession.

Shape our future through ESSA.

We have a great opportunity to influence policy and practice through ESSA. The federal law requires stakeholder input, but the implementation of the law will only be as good as the work we put into making it work for students and educators. Volunteer to be part of your district or state ESSA team. Your state's department of education and the NEA’s EdCommunities site have updates on the process and opportunities for your input if your state's team has been created. Be the point person in your district or at your building to ensure this process works. The very things that have caused teachers to leave the profession are the things the law addresses: evaluation, professional development, teacher preparation, equity, and opportunity, to name a few. Being involved in shaping our own future is essential to stopping the floodwaters.

Unify.

This is our profession—a wonderful and noble one. It is up to each of us to save it and encourage those who follow in our footsteps. Failure is not an option. While we are now under a warning that the profession is in jeopardy, this is not a stationary front we face. Working together, we can watch as the future of our beloved profession is as secure as its past.

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