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5 Ways Teachers Can Use Shortages to Demand Better Working Conditions

teacher shortages, teaching conditions
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For the first time in my nearly two decades of teaching, I am at a school where I feel valued, supported, appreciated, and inspired. School leaders and colleagues look to me as a unique expert and a sought-after executive. They give me the right mix of autonomy, motivation, and help when I need it. I still have to pinch myself to make sure it's real.

I have taught English, theater, speech, and media in a wide range of schools, from low-income public schools to high-income private schools and everything in between. Unfortunately, many of these schools fell short when it came to the administration’s support and the school’s working conditions. I felt weighed down by many policies and procedures, close supervision, and colleagues’ and administrators’ negative attitudes.

These difficulties hampered my ability as a teacher, degraded my work, and took a toll on my spirit. One school wouldn’t let us fail students. Another censored the study of what most would consider mainstream literature. Others treated the faculty like clock-punchers who needed micromanaging. After one 60-hour workweek—not counting grading and planning at home—one administrator asked, "When did you get here this morning? I was standing outside and didn’t see you come in on time."

It is extremely disturbing that my current high-quality teaching conditions—at an independent K-12 school—are not the norm for many teachers I’ve known over the years. But the state of education today can work to our advantage. We can use the current teacher shortages to raise the bar.

According to an Education Week analysis of federal data, while there is no national teacher shortage, all 50 states and most territories reported experiencing statewide shortages in particular subject areas over the last couple years. The shortages are certainly worse in some districts than others. These are not only in the usual hard-to-fill subjects like math and special education, but also in subjects like English, history, and computer science. Some districts offer perks and incentives, such as free college tuition, child care, and subsidized housing to draw teachers in. Others end up with vacant positions.

We must speak up for ourselves and go where we can do our best work—for our students and ourselves.

I have personally seen teacher morale grow progressively worse in recent years for a host of reasons, including low pay, unfair or complicated evaluation systems, a focus on high-stakes standardized testing, a dearth of classroom resources, the weakened state of teachers’ unions, and an increasing lack of respect for the teaching profession.

I’d argue that districts are now in competition for us. We should leverage that power to demand better working conditions and better treatment from administrators and boards. Here are five ways to do so:

1. Believe in yourself. Don’t let conditions break your drive for education and love for your students. Remember why you wanted to teach in the first place. Jot down the good things that happen each day, and make sure you stay connected with colleagues so you can regularly recognize, support, and learn from each other.

2. Be transparent about what you need to do your best work. Conditions won’t improve unless your messages to administrators and policymakers are clear and frequent. Don’t just vent frustrations to your colleagues or your current administration. Come up with solution-oriented answers to the problems you face.

3. If you are in a difficult situation, remember that you have options. Gone are the days when teachers held onto their first jobs and slowly crept up the pay scale. I know from personal experience that there are now bidding wars for teachers. Use that competition to your advantage, and if you’re unhappy, explore job postings often. Let colleagues at other schools know you are looking; personal recommendations can open doors. And when you leave a school, try to get an exit interview and kindly lay out your reasons for changing jobs.

4. Approach prospective school districts with questions. Before you accept a new job, you have the right to figure out if the working conditions are good enough for you. Don’t get hung up on wondering if you are good enough for them. Ask about the district’s teacher retention and turnover numbers, as well as what kind of input structures and teacher-leadership or advancement opportunities exist.

5. Take steps to become a leader or administrator. We must embrace personal leadership so we can fix issues from within. Keep your eyes open to the best practices other districts are using for creating school culture. See what works in schools where teacher morale is high. I took my time getting an administrative license, but almost immediately, the coursework led me to discover new ways to contribute to the improvement of the school while still in the classroom. It also helped me see how things can and should be done on an administrative level.

We don't need to ask for executive-level salaries or fancy technology. But we do deserve the freedom to be resourceful, creative, and tenacious every day. School administrations should be directing resources toward making sure every school, district, state, and federal policy directly enhances and supports day-to-day teaching.

Until then, we must speak up for ourselves and go where we can do our best work—for our students and ourselves. As the demand exceeds the supply in some places, now is the time for us to make a big impact on the state of education. Schools need us. Let’s make sure they give us what we need.

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