My first teaching job was at a very small private school, where I was the only English teacher for all four grades. I made very little money, our health insurance was threatened by financial woes, and I was severely overworked. I almost left teaching after my third year and I have been forever grateful for the next teaching job I received, a job that rescued my career and started me on the path to becoming the best teacher I could be.
I have a hard time regretting that first teaching experience, because even the difficult lessons that I learned during those three years have made me a better teacher, but one of the things I do regret about the experience is the lack of meaningful mentorship that I received as I was learning how to be a teacher. I was on a small staff with very young teachers (we were cheap, energetic, and easily swayed) and a few much older teachers who had dedicated their lives to the hopeful success of the school but with little interest in helping the “newbies” learn the ropes. Looking back, that lack of experienced diversity and mentorship only enhanced an already difficult experience for fresh college graduates who were leaning on each other for survival; fifteen years later, only two of us are still teaching.
There were rumblings about a potential teacher shortage for years before a global pandemic hit, and the reasons for that shortage are endless. When COVID-19 arrived and consumed nearly every discussion about education, the situation quickly got worse. Two years into pandemic teaching and the situation is arguably dire.
Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers, and there are few coming up through teacher education programs to fill the vacant spots that were already there. It is a multi-faceted problem requiring massive systemic overhaul with multi-faceted solutions.
And while the teacher shortage presents all sorts of concerns, starting with the very real need to have trained adults standing in front of a classroom of children who need to be taught, one of the most significant issues caused by the “Great Teacher Resignation” has received little attention: A complete loss of teacher diversity.
After my first three years devoid of meaningful mentorship, I found myself in a “three-headed” English department with two teachers who had three years and ten years of additional teaching experience. For five years we collaborated, shared ideas, lamented our “failures,” and celebrated our successes. When some days became too difficult, they lifted me up with stories of their own struggles and encouragement for another day. When they needed to be reminded why they still taught, I supplied a youthful naïveté that only young teachers possess and can effectively use to their advantage.
After five years I moved to a new school and found myself paired with a first-year teacher; for the first time, I stepped into the role of mentor. As with all good relationships, there was a mutual give and take. While I provided knowledge, experience, and expertise, she brought youth, fresh ideas, and perspective, and energy to the table, things I desperately needed as I slogged through a year that included graduate school, a newborn baby, and a completely new teaching schedule.
A lack of diversity in education existed long before the pandemic. As of the 2017-2018 school year, 79% of public school teachers were white. The vast majority of minority students go several years without having a teacher who looks like them, a factor that has been demonstrated to help with student success. Nearly three-quarters of public school teachers are women, a number that is even higher in elementary schools. The low pay and social stigma that keeps men from entering early childhood programs prevent children from having access to positive male role models throughout their school day. It also eliminates a diversity of perspective as teachers and administrators puzzle through best practices in everything from curriculum design to discipline of our youngest learners.
This problem carries over to secondary education in significantly different ways. While the percentages of male and female teachers usually evens out in high schools, men still tend to dominate STEM fields, leaving the arts and humanities to women. This lack of balance in secondary courses impacts young women who want to pursue math and science and young men who are more interested in English and languages. When teenagers see diversity in the fields that interest them, they may be persuaded to try something different and new, opening them up to a future that previously seemed impossible. As with early childhood instruction, a room full of both male and female voices making decisions about curriculum design and best practices helps schools meet the needs of all students, regardless of race, class, and gender.
And a mass teacher exodus is threatening nearly all aspects of teacher diversity.
It takes first-year teachers a minimum of three years in the same classroom before they start to feel truly competent and effective. This year, first-year teachers are leaving before they even finish their first semester, and most are unlikely to return to teaching. Older teachers without children at home who can once again devote their time and energy to the classroom are taking early retirement, leaving new teachers who are floundering without mentors who are capable of showing them what a full career in education can become. And middle-of-career teachers, like myself, are being left without older mentors who can show us what life at the end of our careers can be and without younger teachers who remind us why we went into education in the first place while offering us new and fresh perspectives. A teaching staff with robust diversity brings with it a wealth of life experience that makes all teachers and administrators better at their jobs, an important detail that many tend to overlook far too often.
The “Great Teacher Resignation” isn’t just leaving students without teachers to stand in front of them in the classroom, it is draining our education system of the diversity needed to make our schools effective and equitable for all students. It is forcing schools to accept mediocrity from the top administrators to the youngest students. It is causing a void that may soon become impossible to fill. The cries proclaiming that we are reaching crisis mode are not hyperbole. If anything, they are cries for help that may be too late.
Much has been written about why teachers are leaving. Much has been written about all the things that need to change to improve education in the United States, starting with the teachers in charge of that education. We can talk about all the reasons for why people are leaving the profession and all the ways that we can turn it around, but maybe we need to start with why it matters in the first place.
The unfortunate reality is that all the effective educational reforms in the world will not matter if we don’t have a diverse, highly-trained workforce to match the demands of those reforms. The people standing in front of students matter; it’s high time we started acting like it.