Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “I think parents should decide what their children are taught in schools. That is all.” Like many other deep thinkers in education, Pompeo is qualified to address complex issues in the field because he attended public school.
To his credit, Pompeo graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy, where he majored in engineering management. He also received a JD from Harvard Law School. Despite the law degree, Pompeo does not understand—or prefers to ignore—“the legal balancing act over public school curriculum,” which is explained in a Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) article by the same title (Underwood, 2019).
What Pompeo and other like-minded individuals may not realize is this: Unless our present course is recharted, many parents will get to decide what their children are taught. There won’t be enough teachers to keep public schools open. Right now, the lack of people willing to teach or serve as substitute teachers has resulted in school closings across the nation:
September 2, 2021 – “Districts may have to temporarily close classrooms. Some districts asking parents and retired teachers to help” (Lambert, 2021).
September 15, 2021 – “Substitute teacher shortage force [sic] Southwest Virginia schools to go virtual” (Schroeder, 2021).
September 22, 2021 – “Illness and lack of subs prompts GIPS to cancel classes Friday” (White, 2021).
How Bad Is the Teacher Shortage?
Most Americans were aware that there was a teacher shortage prior to the pandemic. A brief report from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI; 2018) cited the major prepandemic reasons for teachers leaving the profession, including (a) low salaries, (b) challenging working conditions, and (c) lack of administrative support. A recent study by the RAND Corporation indicated that “stress topped the reasons why public school teachers quit, even before COVID-19” (Diliberti, Schwartz, & Grant, 2021).
The LPI and RAND findings are complementary – working a low-paying job under tough conditions with little support is stressful. During the pandemic, there’s been a significant increase in educators’ anxiety and stress, as teachers have been asked to navigate remote environments that were unfamiliar to some, work longer hours to accommodate both in-person and virtual learners, and put the health of themselves and their loved ones at risk. The term commonly used to describe how teachers feel is “drowning” (Karami, 2021; LaChance, 2020; McQueen, 2021). For a first-hand account of one teacher’s experiences, read this guest post from the Edjacent blog.
In a national survey conducted midway through the 2020-21 school year, two-thirds of approximately 1,200 school and district leaders reported teacher shortages (Buttner, 2021). As I write, there are 488 job openings posted on the website of my former employer, Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS). The great majority of listings are for certified teachers and counselors as well as uncertified substitute, support, and supplemental positions. Let’s not forget that schools need custodians, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, and others to remain in operation.
Projections of teacher supply and demand painted a grim picture long before the pandemic, as illustrated in the graph below. In the comprehensive LPI report that yielded these data, A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the US, the authors concluded that teacher shortages will “also worsen the inequitable distribution of qualified teachers to schools serving concentrations of low-income students and students of color” (Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).
Reprinted with permission from the Economic Policy Institute, The Teacher Shortage is Real, Large and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought (García & Weiss, 2019).
Meanwhile, More Chaos
In spite of the highly contagious Delta variant, most school districts sent their students and teachers back into the classroom at the beginning of the current school year. While school boards went about the business of overseeing this precarious start, “the toxic acrimony of national politics [began] seeping down to the local level” (Stanage, 2021). Droves of concerned citizens, mostly armchair experts, signed up to speak—or yell, rant, and sometimes make threats—at school board meetings.
On my local public access station, I’ve watched Virginia Beach school board meetings where anti-maskers mansplain to board members why “masks don’t work.” I witnessed a woman equate mandatory mask policies with Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars, an historically inaccurate comparison so vile, there are no words. In addition, a wave of parents and grandparents have approached the podium to question the rights and even the very existence of LGBTQ+ students, while many speakers decried Critical Race Theory, claiming that CRT is being taught in K-12 schools under the guise of VBCPS’s ongoing commitment to equity. One father said that cameras should be placed in classrooms so lessons could be livestreamed. This ridiculous notion takes helicopter parenting to a new level.
The inflamed rhetoric is quite disturbing to children, parents, and educators who understand that in the 21st century, even the “best” schools are not necessarily safe places – not safe from COVID, not safe from gun violence. The last straw for the teachers who remain on the job in these trying times could be the unchecked anger of citizens, some of whom have children or grandchildren in the classrooms of these holdouts. As the superintendent of Fauquier County Public Schools in Virginia asked last month, “Who would want to be a teacher right now?” (Jeck, 2021). Unless drastic changes are made, the cry that the “current situation is not sustainable” (a quote from Angell, 2020; McCue, 2021; and McKinney, 2020) will likely give way to this howl: “Why are our schools closing?”
What Can Noneducators Do?
The 53rd Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools (2021) found that 54% of all respondents gave their local public schools a grade of “A” or “B.” These results were similar to findings from another recent survey in which 55% of prospective 2022 voters rated “the job public schools in your community are doing right now” either excellent or good (National School Boards Action Center, 2021). This is favorable news for supporters of public education, but simply saying that you approve of your local school is not enough to keep staff on the job. There are several things you can do to support educators. Here’s the short list:
Get educated and vote. Most politicians speak out in favor of education and teachers, but their ideas are vastly different. Before you cast your ballot for governor, legislator, city council member, county commissioner, or school board member, go beyond the talking points and dig deep to learn as much as possible about their actual plans for public education. Don’t vote for candidates whose views align with those of the people described in the second paragraph of the previous section.
Communicate with politicians. Call, email, write, and/or meet with the leaders of your locality and state. Share stories in positive ways that demonstrate the urgency of keeping experienced teachers in the classroom.
Speak at a school board meeting, either in person or virtually. Your advocacy can drown out the loud and unproductive voices that give the impression the community does not care for educators. Teachers watch school board meetings and feel every criticism. Knowing there are supportive citizens out there might lift their spirits.
Volunteer at your local school. There are duties that become additional responsibilities for teachers unless volunteers cover them. Monitoring classes during lunch, tutoring, reading to students, and helping out in the library or office are examples.
Offer educator discounts. If you or someone you know owns a business, educator discounts are not only great PR, they actually work. During my teaching days, my coworkers and I frequented shops and restaurants that offered discounts to school employees.
Let them know. Educators will realize that their efforts are appreciated if people tell them so and do “little things” to help reduce their stress (e.g., mow their lawn, clean their gutters, bring them a casserole, offer to babysit). Parents with schoolchildren can write positive notes to their teachers and encourage their kids to do the same. Every teacher treasures these kinds of simple, heartfelt gestures. It reminds them that their work is important and meaningful, which is most certainly needed when the going is rough.
What Can Educators Do?
While popular culture markets self-care in the form of bubble baths and yoga classes, the type of care that educators want and need looks different. School and district leaders could offer more white space in their teachers’ schedules for recharging purposes – it is within their power to reduce educators’ workloads. Unfortunately, this is beyond the control of individual teachers. Here are some things that educators can do to maintain energy and fulfilment:
Connect with other educators and caregivers. Sharing experiences with a kindred spirit who understands what it is like can make even a brief conversation valuable.
Create something new. Invest a small portion of your time in a passion project that reminds you of who you are as an educator and why you became one in the first place.
Find a coach. Talk through your specific challenges with a great listener who can help you use the resources already within you to reframe challenges as opportunities and help you feel a greater sense of agency.
Grow. Lean into the lessons available during this challenging time. Keep a journal or talk with someone to reflect on your emerging opportunities and insights, even if it’s for only five minutes per day.
The Edjacent community offers support for members and nonmembers in each of these areas. We want you to learn, grow, and thrive as an individual so we can begin to heal our profession collectively. If you are a noneducator but you care about the state of educator well-being, consider gifting a membership or a course to your educator loved ones.