Why It’s Important To Say There Is No Teacher Shortage

I’ve been saying it. Tim Slekar has been saying it. Other people who aren’t even directly tied to teaching have been saying it.

There is no teacher shortage.

There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019.

Why is it important to keep saying this? Why keep harping on this point?

Because if you don’t correctly identify the problem, you will not correctly identify a solution.

“We’ve got a teacher shortage,” leads us in the wrong direction. It assumes that, for some reason, there just aren’t enough teachers out there in the world, like arguing there aren’t enough blue-eyed people or enough people with six toes. It assumes that “teacher” is some sort of solid genetic state that either exists or does not, and if there aren’t enough of them, well, shrug, whatcha gonna do?

“We’ve got a teacher shortage,” argues that we’ve had the meat widget equivalent of a crop failure. The drought and the dust storms were just so bad this year that we didn’t get a full harvest of teachers. And when the harvest is slow, what can we do except look for substitutes?

That’s where teacher shortage talk takes us– to a search for teacher substitutes. Maybe we can just lower the bar. Only require a college degree in anything at all. Louisiana is just the most recent state to decide to lower the bar– maybe we can just let anyone who had lousy college grades but still got a job doing something, well, maybe we can make that person a teacher.

Or maybe we can substitute computers for teachers. A few hundred students with a “mentor” and a computer would be just as good as one of those teachers that we’re short of, anyway, right?

We need to stop talking about a “teacher shortage” because that kind of talk takes our eyes off the real problem.

Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it.

This is actually good news, because it means that we can actually do something about it. The resistance to doing so is certainly very human– if we convince ourselves that a problem in our lives is something that just happened to us, then it’s not our fault. Unfortunately, that also means we have no power. Stan Lee told us that with great power comes great responsibility, but the converse is also true– with great responsibility comes great power, so when we accept the responsibility, we get some power that comes with it.

Anyway. The most obvious answer folks land on is “Offer them more money,” and that is certainly an Economics 101 answer. If you have a job that people don’t want to do, offer more money to do it. If teaching paid $500,000 a year, there wouldn’t be an unfilled job in the country. But as the #RedForEd walkouts remind us, money isn’t the whole issue.

Respect. Support. The tools necessary to do a great job. Autonomy. Treating people like actual functioning adults. These are all things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing. I’ve often wondered how much job satisfaction you could add by giving teachers actual personal offices, some space of their own. These are all things that any school district could add, on their own, almost immediately (well, maybe not the offices).

There are other factors that make the job less attractive. The incessant focus on testing. The constant stream of new policies crafted by people who couldn’t do a teacher’s job for fifteen minutes. The huge workload, including a constant mountainous river of stupid paperwork (is there any wonder why special ed positions are among the hardest to fill). The moves to deprofessionalize the work. The national scale drumbeat of criticism and complaint and repetitively insisting that schools suck, teachers suck, it all sucks.

The continued pretense that there is some sort of deep mystery about why teaching jobs are hard to fill, as if it’s just an a mystery wrapped in an enigma covered with puzzle sauce. Shrugging and saying, “Well, there’s just a teacher shortage,” is a way for everyone responsible, from the building administrators who do a lousy job of taking care of their people all the way up through legislators who continue to beat down public education, to pretend innocence, to say innocently, “Well, it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it.”

And, we should note, this all piles on top of more specific problems, like the dire need to get Brown and Black teachers in the classroom. Again, folks just shrug and say, “Well, you know, there just aren’t that many teachers of color” as if that’s because of some act of God.

We know exactly why so many teaching jobs are hard to fill. But the folks with power would rather not bother exerting the effort to actually fix the problem. After all, it would be hard, and expensive, and anyway, why go to so much trouble over a bunch of whiny women. Even after being dragged to some level of understanding by teachers, many legislators have turned away and gone back to denial.

“We have a teacher shortage,” is a fig leaf with which we are trying to cover the Grand Canyon, but many folks are only too happy to play along rather than rock the boat. Because “disruption” is only good for some folks.

So don’t say “We have a teacher shortage.” Say “we can’t convince qualified people to take this job”: or “we won’t try to make these jobs attractive enough to draw in qualified people.” Stop pretending this is some act of God; even the dust bowl turned out to be the result of bad human choices and not nature’s crankiness. If we start talking about what– and who– is really responsible, perhaps we can fix the problem– but only if we start with the correct diagnosis.


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