School Principles: What’s Going On With the Teacher Shortage?
Melisa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. We're continuing our special series, School Principals. With the conversation about the teacher shortage being experienced in many communities, we wanted to hear directly from a teacher.
Kirk: My name is Kirk. I taught middle school math at a charter school in Brownsville, East New York.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Kirk recently made the tough decision to leave teaching after six years.
Kirk: I wanted to teach since I was in fourth grade. I had a teacher that really made me care and want to learn and motivated me for the first time to want to do well in school, and so that's when I started thinking about, "Oh, I'm going to be a teacher." Then my high school US history teacher, same thing. I was like, "Oh, I want to emulate this person and I can do this. This is something I'm going to be really good at." From fourth grade, high school up until, I don't know, maybe April or March, I had thought that I was going to teach forever, like until I retire or die. I loved teaching.
Melisa Harris-Perry: It wasn't until school returned to in-person classes last year that Kirk realize just how substantial the pandemic's toll had been on the mental health of his students. Brownsville, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Kirk's school is located, has one of the highest poverty rates in New York City. It's a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood. It was one of the places in Brooklyn hardest hit by the early days of the pandemic.
Kirk: In education, we talk about trauma and conflict, like, "Oh, Okay, I understand this," but I never understood it until I really saw it and I was like, "Okay, I see this now." Because you could see kids really struggle reacting appropriately and managing situations, that they would get frustrated and escalate significantly for no-- A very minuscule conversation would escalate into a physical altercation. Whereas previously, kids would just figure it out. There was no problem.
Melisa Harris-Perry: This also had a toll on his students' academic performance. Before, Kirk says his kids were outperforming on state assessments. After the 2020 quarantine, they were struggling.
Kirk: Academically, these social-emotional problems were apparent because kids would shut down in moments of difficulty, whereas in years past, more kids would persevere or they weren't as far behind academically, so they could feel like they could reach what we were doing. In math, that's so important, you have to push through the uncomfortable, you have to push through the, "I don't know," and try because that's then when you learn, that's then when you start to understand conceptually a lot of these topics and things like that, but if you just don't try and you get stuck, then it's really difficult to really master a lot of these things, and so that's what [unintelligible 00:02:51]
Melisa Harris-Perry: Kirk tried helping kids that were falling behind. He met with students after school to catch them up on work they missed and he'd texted parents to get them involved, but he simply burned out.
Kirk: Our job is difficult and I was like, "Over the last six years I've put in 12-hour days than most of my friends that make two, three, four times what I make." I lost belief in how big of an impact I can make or what my impact was. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. Emotionally, physically, psychologically, I was just done.
Melisa Harris-Perry: This year, he decided not to return.
Kirk: I think when I realized that I couldn't be entirely emotionally invested as I feel that I should, I was just like, "I got to step away, because otherwise, I'm not going to be the best service to our kids." I have a friend that always tells me to put your mask on first, like on the airplane they always say put your mask on first before assisting somebody near you, and so I think I finally did that, unfortunately, but hopefully in the long run, fortunately. I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do next.
Melisa Harris-Perry: I just want to thank Kirk so much for sharing with us. I'm joined now by David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies. Thanks for being on The Takeaway, David.
David Rosenberg: Thanks for having me.
Melisa Harris-Perry: What is your understanding of the causes of the current teacher shortage?
David Rosenberg: The underlying factors driving the current teacher shortage in some ways are not that different from the factors that have caused us to often lose really good teachers in the past. In many communities, you've had over the years a job that requires teachers to work mostly in isolation, a job that often doesn't have time in the day for reflection or collaboration. You've got teachers asked to engage in professional development that isn't really relevant to their day-to-day work. The job doesn't change over the course of a career, and I would just try to imagine a professional career that doesn't evolve very much from year to year to year.
Those issues that existed before the pandemic. Of course, what we've had over the last two and a half years is just this tremendous complexity in terms of student need, in terms of teaching remotely for a long time, in terms of now addressing the after-effects or the current effects of the pandemic, and the work is challenging. It's as challenging as it's ever been and there are a whole bunch of factors that therefore make it difficult for folks to stick with it and to not burn out over time.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Where are the locations where we're seeing the greatest teacher shortage right now?
David Rosenberg: An important thing to recognize is that teacher labor markets are very local. We often-- Maybe you hear a story about somebody who moved across the country for a job teaching in a different place, but the vast majority of teachers who shift move from one school to another, sometimes in the same district or in the same metropolitan area. The answer to where is there a teacher shortage or is there a national teacher shortage is a little bit less relevant than the question of what's happening in my community right now?
What we know is that there's two factors, that overwhelmingly we see higher rates of turnover, and that's before the pandemic and now. The first is in our lowest income communities, in the schools with the most significant student needs, we see typically see higher turnover. Even within the same community, there can be quite a variation. The second piece is we see higher turnover among early career teachers, folks who one or two or three years in say, "I'm not sure I can stick it out. I'm not sure I can do this in spite of all the work I've done to get to this point."
Because teacher labor markets are so local, the story will vary from one place to another, but typically, in most communities, schools with more significant student need, higher poverty rates, and I see higher turnover rates and teachers who are earlier in their career on average leave at a higher rate. You put those things together, and in the districts where we work, which are large urban centers around the country, early career teachers in high-poverty schools leave at about a 35% rate every year. One in three early career teachers in high-poverty schools will leave their school. Some of them will stay within the district, but they will move.
That level of churn obviously has a detrimental impact on kids, and when we think about what does it mean to build a profession, to build a career as a teacher, we've got to think about what are the conditions we've created in all schools? Because there's not a lot of teachers in the country that will say their job is easy, which frankly, it should be. What are the conditions that we're creating that make it possible for teachers to be successful with their kids and to build the relationships that they need and do the work that we ask them to do to support our children through their educational process?
Melisa Harris-Perry: Right now in this moment, at the start of this school year, are there some specific things that have made teaching even harder? Pay hasn't dropped, but I wonder if inflation makes pay feel as though it's dropped. I'm wondering about the effects of policies, like anti-CRT policies, or even just the pure fear of violence in the school building, are those part of the burnout issues that you're seeing?
David Rosenberg: I think all of those are currently complicating factors, and I'm probably understating the impact of that individual teachers' lives, but the political context in which teachers are working, and it depends on the teacher's perspective on those issues, obviously affects the work that they can and do do on a day-to-day basis. There's no doubt that this is a particularly stressful time for students and teachers to be in school.
At the same time, we also know that some of the underlying factors are things that we talked about earlier that lead to burnout. I know you talked to a teacher earlier who talked about his 12-hour days, talked about his burnout. I think when we look at what helps teachers thrive in the research on that, you see things like time for reflection, time to work with colleagues, you see things like really strong support from leadership, really big investments in job-embedded professional development, the work that directly helps them have efficacy to be great teachers for their kids.
Anything that we do that complicates that, obviously, is going to make things harder. At the same time, some of those underlying factors I think can mitigate even the most complicating issues. You do see schools and communities that in spite of the current political context have cultures and teachers who are able to thrive, and so how do we emulate more of what we see in those schools?
Melisa Harris-Perry: What are the tools for retention and for improving the quality of life for the teachers in the classroom?
David Rosenberg: I think there's a few things that are at play here. One is, you mentioned, obviously, the job is to be rewarding. Financially, you have to be able to earn a living. There are states and communities in the country where teachers struggle to earn a living wage and have to work second jobs. When we think more broadly about what's true in most places, we think about like, how do we make the job more dynamic, where over the course of your career you can take on different kinds of challenges and the teachers who have the greatest impact on kids have the opportunity to extend that impact?
We think about a job that is more collaborative, where teachers have meaningful [unintelligible 00:10:34] you get 90 minutes a week of time together, one block, with teachers who teach the same thing you do, and can they be working with great curriculum, and can they be working with somebody on the team who has really deep expertise in the work and they're focused on what is the work we need to do together to advance student learning so the practices within that time matter?
We think about what is the nature of teaching load? How much work you have to do? How sustainable is the job? We ask teachers to do an awful lot during the course of the school day that isn't just about instruction. In some cases, in some high schools, we ask teachers to be in charge of instruction for 150, 180 kids, which is very difficult then to build the relationships that you need.
I think the last thing I'd put out there is we have to structure the profession in ways that allow us to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. Our student body does not look like our teacher force given the demographic evolution of the country. Anything that we do that creates artificial barriers to entry that could disproportionately affect folks who are coming from a less economically privileged background, which is disproportionately going to affect a Black and Latino potential teacher candidates, anything we do that creates those barriers is going to hurt us in the long run.
How do we make it easier for folks to move into teaching, to thrive in those first few years, and then to build a career that lets them live up to the vision that they had when they first thought about becoming an educator?
Melisa Harris-Perry: David Rosenberg is a partner at Education Resource Strategies. David, thanks so much for joining me.
David Rosenberg: Thank you, Melissa.
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