What will we do when schools reopen and there aren’t enough teachers to instruct our kids?
People complain when there aren’t enough servers at restaurants or baggers at the grocery store.
What will they say in August if school buildings in many districts remain closed or the only viable option is online remote schooling?
Lawmakers at the state and federal level are taking the matter seriously with measures to increase teacher salary or provide one-time bonuses.
Alabama, New Mexico, and Mississippi have already boosted teacher pay, with Florida, Iowa and Kentucky potentially set to do the same. Meanwhile, even US Congress could pass a nationwide measure to heighten teacher salary and encourage educators to stay in the classroom.
After decades of neglect only made worse by Covid-19, we’re missing almost a million teachers.
And we only have about 3.2 million teachers nationwide!
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And that’s on top of already losing 250,000 school employees during the recession of 2008-09 most of whom were never replaced. All while enrollment increased by 800,000 students.
Meanwhile, finding replacements has been difficult. Across the country, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
So what are we doing about it?
Congress has at least one bill under consideration that would raise teacher salaries nationwide.
The Respect, Advancement, and Increasing Support for Educators (RAISE) Act would provide teachers with a minimum of $1,000 in refundable tax credits and as much as $15,000.
The more impoverished the school where teachers work, the higher the tax credit available to increase their salaries. The bill would also double the educator tax deduction to offset the cost of school supplies, and expand eligibility to early childhood educators.
The bill was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), John Larson (D-CT), and Mark Takano (D-CA). It is supported by a broad coalition of organizations including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).
Such a measure is long overdue.
Teachers are paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.
Why would you go into debt earning a four year degree in education and serve an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom just to earn little more than a fry chef or Walmart greeter?
Why enter a field where you can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas? Why volunteer for a job where you won’t be able to afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence?
Thankfully, Congressional proposals aren’t the only attempt to make teaching more attractive.
Some states have already taken action.
The Alabama Senate passed a budget that would raise minimum salaries for teachers with nine or more years experience. The raises would range from 5% to nearly 21%, depending on years of experience.
A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience would see their salary rise from $51,810 to $57,214. A teacher with a master’s degree and 25 years experience would see their pay rise from $61,987 to $69,151.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that would increase base salary levels by an average of 20 percent. This advances minimum salary tiers for educators by $10,000 to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000.
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves signed off on an average increase of $5,100 that will raise educator salaries by more than 10 percent.
According to Politico, both Republican and Democratic Governors are proposing teacher salary increases or one-time bonuses as part of budget proposals and legislative priorities.
Even Governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Florida’s Ron DeSantis are promoting teacher bonuses while also stoking classroom culture wars. On the other side of the aisle, Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear is trying to push through a teacher pay plan through opposition by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.
Such measures are even being proposed in Pennsylvania. Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) recently introduced Senate Bill 1211 to boost starting pay for teachers from the current minimum of $18,500 listed in state law. She proposes increasing it to $45,000 a year. However, the bill sent to the Senate Education Committee has several Democratic co-sponsors but no Republicans, making it doubtful it will progress anytime soon.
The main factor behind these plans seems to be the $350 billion in state and local recovery funds under the American Rescue Plan. These federal dollars have few strings attached and only about half of the money has been spent so far.
After decades of neglect, these plans may not be enough and they may not even come to fruition. However, at least lawmakers seem to understand the problem exists.
It’s gratifying that politicians finally seem to feel a sense of urgency here.
Because this problem didn’t spring up overnight and it won’t go away in a flash.
If we don’t do something to make teaching more attractive, the problem will only be compounded in coming years.
Not only are we having a hard time keeping the teachers we have, few college students want to enter the field.
Over the past decade, there’s been a major decline in enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs in education.
Beginning in 2011, enrollment in such programs and new education certifications in Pennsylvania — my home state— started to decline. Today, only about a third as many students are enrolled in teacher prep programs in the Commonwealth as there were 10 years ago. And state records show new certifications are down by two-thirds over that period.
And it’s not just classroom teachers – substitutes are even harder to find.
The shortage of substitute teachers has gotten so bad in 2021-22, it forced some schools across the country to temporarily move to remote learning. Even Pittsburgh Public Schools was forced to go to cyber learning on Nov. 29 because of a staffing shortage and a lack of substitute teachers.
And it doesn’t look to get better next year.
Last June almost a third of working educators expressed a desire to leave the profession.
According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. So we don’t have enough teachers now and one in three educators we do have are ready to walk out the door.
What could we do about it?
In the long term, we need structural solutions to the problem:
And in the short term we need:
Reduced case load.
Dedicated planning periods.
But don’t take my word for it.
A survey by the RAND Corp. reported that the pandemic has increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.
The CDC Foundation in May released similar results – 27% of teachers reporting depression and 37% reporting anxiety.
However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures.
It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization.
Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit.
Our schools have been doing that to teachers for decades – underpaying them for the high responsibilities they have, expecting each individual to do the work of multiple people and when anything goes wrong, blaming them for it.
We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.
There are things we can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give them a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.
But we also have to start paying teachers more.
Thankfully our lawmakers are taking this matter to heart and actually getting some results.
Hopefully this trend will continue until every teacher in the nation is adequately, equitably and sustainably compensated for the work done in the classroom.
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