“If you hate violence and don’t believe in politics, the only major remedy remaining is education. Perhaps society is past praying for, but there is always hope for the individual human being, if you can catch him young enough.”
― George Orwell
It’s that time of year when familiar yellow school buses hit the road, personal cars jam access to school driveways at certain times of the day, students mentally compose stories of what they did over the summer to share with classmates, and the morning class bell rings to put everyone in academic mode.
But every classroom may not have a regular teacher when the first bell rings. Both local school systems expect to start the year with a few teacher vacancies, though the shortage of classroom educators here apparently is considerably less severe than other places.
There is a shortage of teachers nationwide. The problem is getting worse. Those in the profession are leaving, many before retirement; the numbers of potential new teachers are dropping; and the attention being paid to the seriousness of the problem is minimal relative to its importance.
A recent survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators found that of the 4,600 educators responding to survey questions, more than half said they would not recommend a career in education to others.
Let that sink in a minute. Most of us know of multi-generational families of teachers, or teachers who are in the classroom today because of their respect for the job done by someone who taught them. Yet the online survey of PAGE members completed in November found only 25 percent were likely to recommend education as a career path for others, while 51 percent said they definitely would not do so.
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Perhaps more telling is a 2018 poll, cited by an American Federation of Teachers task force report, that found for the first time in 50 years that a majority of Americans were opposed to their own children becoming teachers.
No wonder we have a teacher shortage that has reached the critical stage.
Teaching is a noble and valued profession, but it is one we have failed to give the respect it’s due, and now we are paying the price. It is hard to recruit new members to a profession if those in it are unhappy, and many teachers these days are miserable, with legitimate cause. Consider:
In terms of compensation, we have never paid teachers like we would expect to pay other college trained, certified professionals. An analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board put the average gross starting pay for a teacher in Georgia in 2020 at $38,509, slightly less than the average for starting teachers in neighboring Alabama, but generally in line with most Southeastern states.
In December 2019, a study by the Education Law Center found teachers in Georgia were paid about 73 percent of what similarly trained non-teaching professionals were paid, which the study found to be the sixth largest pay gap in the nation.
To their credit, state officials in Georgia, and members of our local school boards, have taken steps to increase compensation for teachers in recent years, but when you are starting from a low standard, small incremental increases, though certainly steps in the right direction, can’t go far enough, fast enough and end up being little more than cost-of-living bumps.
But money isn’t the only issue. The PAGE survey found that of those respondents planning to leave the profession with less than 20 years of service, more than 60 percent cited “burnout/overwhelmed,” as a primary reason for leaving, twice as many as said salary was one of the primary reasons to do so.
A 2022 survey conducted for the American Federation of Teachers, a nationwide teachers union, asked respondents to identify the top three things to improve staff recruitment and retention. In response, 95 percent said eliminating paperwork and non-teaching responsibilities; 93 percent said raising salaries; and 91 percent said respect and support from administration.
Who can blame teachers for not feeling respected? They may be the professionally trained experts in the classroom, but every politician wants to tell them how to do their job; every political activist wants to scrutinize them for negative fodder to post to social media; and monolithic bureaucracies want to drown them in often senseless paperwork and recordkeeping that forces actual teaching and interaction with students to the backburner.
This isn’t only a Georgia problem. At the national level, the estimate is that some 300,000 teachers and school staff members abandon the profession before retirement each year. It is estimated that some 30 percent of those quitting prior to retirement age do so within the first five years of teaching, a number significantly higher than other professions.
The shortages are so severe that states are doing different things to address the problem. In Florida, the legislature has allowed military veterans with four years of service to teach. In Arizona, college students can now teach before earning their bachelor’s degree. At least, two school systems in Texas are experimenting with 4-day school weeks. Other systems are increasing the amount of remote online instruction being done.
Providing an avenue for those with degrees in areas other than education to become teachers has become the norm nationwide. The Education Law Center study found nearly 25% of newly hired teachers in Georgia in 2019 had “alternative certification,” compared to 13 percent in 2013.
Experienced teachers leaving. A lack of qualified new teachers. A lack of interest in becoming a teacher. Classrooms directed by those without appropriate training. Political interference. Personal attacks. Overzealous parental criticism. Public ridicule. And, don’t forget, you might just get shot one day.
The teacher shortage across the nation is a crisis that has been ignored for too long. It’s not going to improve until we recognize it as such and take action to improve working conditions for those in the profession, which starts with paying them the respect they deserve for the job they do, and the money they deserve for doing it.