Let’s Ask the Students, Shall We?

In a recent NPR story, reporter Eric Westervelt has gotten around to saying something I’ve been predicting for at least a decade: a nationwide teacher shortage is imminent. Westervelt ponders the trend, citing things such as: declining teacher pay; demoralization of the teaching profession within society; pressures associated with standardized testing and teacher evaluations; and more options in the workplace for would-be teachers as potential reasons why enrollment in teacher preparation programs is falling, and falling fast.

These reasons all sound logical. However, teachers are a dedicated bunch. For starters, no one goes into teaching to get rich, at least not in the United States. Second, there have always been public critics of teachers and their pesky unions.  Additionally, pressures have always been upon teachers to better society through education. This includes being held accountable by our students, their parents, and communities, who often hold the power to pass or veto school budgets. Finally, especially for the best and brightest, there are many career paths we could have chosen over teaching. Yet the question remains, “Why are college students these days choosing not to become teachers?”

I propose that we think about the students. Think about their experiences. For the past 15 years since the inception of No Child Left Behind, our students have endured for month after month, year after year, testing regimens. They have experienced decreases in music, art, physical education, dance, lunch, and recess. They have seen the goblet of creativity replaced with holy grail of assessment from which no one’s thirst is quenched. They have felt entire days, weeks, and months of engaging learning slip away, only to be replaced by mind-numbing test preparation activities. These students, many of whom have been tested and “practice-tested” multiple times every year since the third grade, are now of career age. Why would they want to become part of a profession where children are subjected to those conditions when so many of them are just glad to be out of it?

I know I wouldn’t. I became a teacher not only because I loved English. I also loved math and music. I even, on occasion, liked science and social studies. But most of all, I became a teacher because I am passionate about teaching, about education, and about helping students to become their best selves. I was inspired by teachers who felt the same way. Their enthusiasm for teaching and learning led them to throw out the rules and do the things that would reach their students. I learned about US history from a teacher who came to school dressed as a Union soldier and showed us Ken Burns documentaries before most people knew who Ken Burns was.  I discovered world literature from a 68 year-old teacher who openly encouraged us to question authority. I studied math with a teacher whose own son committed suicide, yet he showed up every day to teach because he believed he might reach us. I read The Catcher in the Rye with an educator whose enthusiasm made me want to meet Holden Caulfield. And I loved them all.

Do our students have these teachers? Absolutely. Do these teachers have the freedom to be the teachers they were born to be? In most places, no — at least, not if they want to keep their jobs. The crisis of teacher shortage is real, and it gets more dire each year; but this is not the true crisis in education. The true crisis in education is one that teachers have been talking about since, oh, around the year 2001. If we are to resolve this teacher shortage, then higher pay and more respect are not going to cut it. We need to face the now obvious elephant in the room: the hostile takeover of education by corporations whose profits can be directly linked to a near 15-year trend of student and teacher disgust. No one will be inspired to teach in a system that perpetuates misery. And if you think about it critically, like your teachers taught you, can you blame them?

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