I came across a news item this morning reporting a decline in the number of North Carolina students choosing to become teachers and indicating that some state leaders are beginning to see the decline as a crisis. Reports like this have been coming in for some time from all over the United States. Few, if any, of these reports talk about any reasonable approach to solving this growing problem in a nation whose teacher workforce is aging. The simple fact is that in most places, teachers are under-paid relative to similarly educated people and, almost more importantly, their working conditions are deteriorating precipitously.
Wherever they turn, teachers are depicted as a lazy, ill-educated incompetent lot who must be tested and developed. More and more, their jobs require less and less creativity with a shift away from direct instruction and towards becoming facilitators of students either learning on their own or through technologically mediated means. Increasingly, teachers are employed to train children for college and careers rather than educating them to be enlightened citizens of a democratic society. Were I a young person seeking a career, teaching would be the last thing I would contemplate. For a lifestyle that often doesn’t permit them to live in the communities in which they teach, teachers are subject to endless ridicule by craven politicians like Andrew Cuomo who have neither the intellect nor the guts to take on the social issues that cause thousands of children to enter our schools already years behind their peers in cognitive and linguistic development due to the mere fact of being born poor. At their work place, teachers are often supervised by people who themselves spent little time in the classroom who are quick to second guess every move they make. All too often, if they are committed to maintaining high academic standards, they are plagued by parental complaints that spring from a belief that any thing that makes their children feel bad is tantamount to bullying. It’s becoming more and more of a thankless job that everyone thinks he can do better than you.
I think young people are seeing these conditions and choosing to go in other directions. To halt this trend will require restructuring the way schools are organized in ways that give teachers real autonomy over their work, respect for the difficulty and arduousness of the work (How many laypeople know how physically hard it is to stand and talk for five to six hours a day?), opportunities to perform different roles in their schools and a package of salary and benefits that permits them to live decently and take care of and educate their own children. All the talk by policy makers about increased support and staff development is at best palliative and avoids the central fact that the job offers fewer rewards than it used to.