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We are in the midst of a schoolhouse crisis. A Learning Policy Institute study predicted a shortfall of over 100,000 teachers each year starting several years ago. The science seems to be confirmed by anecdotal evidence of teachers heading for the exits. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released findings last fall that showed a 56% increase in the suicide rate of young people over the last decade. Put together, it’s clear that schoolhouses are full of desperate people.
True, the Learning Policy Institute points to low pay and lack of support and guidance as key drivers causing teachers to quit. I don’t dismiss these problems, but no teacher came to the profession thinking they would get rich, and last week I wrote about 5 tips for teachers battling exhaustion. Teachers know and share with each other how to cope with being overtaxed and managing the obstacles of the school day. They can handle exhaustion if they see results. However, instead of feeling like all the struggles are worth it, teachers just see more responsibilities piling at their feet. They are asked, like police officers, to take responsibility for a litany of social services that no individual could possibly shoulder successfully. The consequences are detrimental to both teachers and students.Teachers are quitting because they are desperate. Click To Tweet
Dealing with desperation isn’t simple or quick. There isn’t a 5 step list that is going to help. But, I’ve divided my strategies for fighting this monster into two camps: environment and attitude. As teachers, it is easy to bemoan our surroundings as being dictated to us. We wrangle 30 kids at a moment’s notice; we shape our environment daily. And, when it comes to attitudes, teachers can be guilty of selling themselves short, believing they are powerless, thus incapable of effecting change. That needs to stop.
Adjusting Your Attitude
First, as a teacher, no one tells you what to teach or how to teach it. The 4 walls of your classroom are your kingdom to govern and operate as you please. It’s an incredible power as well as an enormous responsibility.
With that in mind, find the things you value teaching. And teach them. This isn’t an invitation to spend the next 2 months covering the most minute details of the Revolutionary War because you like it. It is an invitation to remember that for all the demands placed on teachers, the day-to-day decisions are left up to us. So, own your room.
Personally, I’ve decided my value comes in skills. I can help students synthesize or evaluate sources and construct detailed arguments. Creating mini-encyclopedias about the Monroe Doctrine or the Olive Branch Petition isn’t my value. Google has cornered that market, and I’m not interested in fighting them, so I don’t.
Similarly, be picky about what you allow into your classroom when it comes to pedagogy. Growth and evolution require change, but that doesn’t mean every change is for the better. Just because there is a Web 2.0 tool that allows students to exchange video messages of their answers to the assessment question doesn’t mean that it is better than having students turn and talk to their neighbor about the assessment question.
Have a core set of strategies you use with students to give them--and you--stability. When facing desperate times, people need support. Again, this isn’t to say that teachers shouldn’t change or grow, but we live in an era of unprecedented growth and change. In order to survive, teachers have to provide consistency for their and their students’ sake.
Taking Back Your Environment
Accepting that you have great influence over many daily practices is one thing, but it’s another to get systemic support that actually empowers teachers. However, teachers have a central role in pushing systemic change too.
Start running your mouth. First, talk to your friends who aren’t teachers about your job. Don’t sugar coat it, but don’t cherry-pick the worst-case scenarios either. Too often, teachers deal in extremes. Tell them about those average kids who you know need help but you can’t get to. Talk about why you’ve been trying to call Jerry’s house for 2 weeks but haven’t been successful. Explain how you’re evaluated. Talk about the scope of your day. People will listen because you are entrusted with the care of their most precious commodity--their kids.
Everyone thinks they know what good teaching looks like because their life was touched by a great teacher. But, people don’t understand what it is to be a great teacher. The public’s perception of education is built around their experiences, generally, as students. This isn’t an indictment; people just don’t know how those teachers managed to change their lives. The hours of work and dedication. They didn’t see all of that. Let them see a little.
Don’t stop there though. Talk to the people in charge. As convinced as I am that most people rely on their experiences as students to gauge the work and quality of teachers, I’m equally convinced that administrators and policymakers exit schoolhouses and immediately forget the realities of educating children. Remind them what’s at stake. Remind them how much time and attention it takes to care for youngsters.
Teachers have to put forth a proactive message about how teachers build community, teach compassion and kindness while giving kids the confidence to tackle tough problems. We need to tell our stories to local newspapers and write letters to editorial boards commenting on policy proposals. We need to tell our superintendents and boards of education what policy proposals they need to implement. We are the experts who know what schools need. And, if we want our environments to change, we better tell people how to get it right.