Tim Slekar, Director of the Educator Preparation Program, Muskingum University of Ohio. He insists we do not have a teacher shortage. We have a shortage of respect for teachers as professionals. He wrote the following:

Enough Already! It’s NOT a teacher shortage.

The public is not begging for teachers yet, but districts are. At some point, if this pathway does not change, the public will also be begging for teachers.” Scott Klimek

It was 9:55 am and Mrs. Tichon’s kindergartners were focused on the literacy task at hand. Every Monday morning at 9:45 Mrs. Tichon’s 26 kindergartners had to spend 15 minutes completing a district mandated “literacy check.” And every Monday three of Mrs. Tichon’s children never finished at 10:00 am and had to miss recess. 

Not today though! Mrs. Tichon had had enough. At 10:00 am she announced to her class that it was time to turn in their assignments and line up for recess. Of course the three children who never finished stayed in their seats and prepared to spend recess in the classroom completing the literacy check. “William, Lela, and Termain” Mrs. Tichon’s voice rang out. “Put your pencils down and please get in line. You are going to recess.”

Later that day Mrs. Tichon was summoned to the principal’s office during her lunch. She didn’t think anything of it at the time, so she picked up her things and went in to see her principal Ms. Stanever.

Ms. Stanever glanced up from her desk when she heard the knock on the door frame from Mrs. Tichon. “Please come in, close the door and sit down,” Ms Stanever whispered to Mrs. Tichon. Mrs. Tichon knew at that moment that something was wrong.

“Can you please tell me why William, Lela, and Termain did not finish their literacy check?” asked Ms. Stanever.

“Because it’s just not right to keep them in every Monday from recess. They’re only 4 years old. They need to play” Mrs. Tichon asserted.

“No. They must complete their literacy check so we can send their scores to central office to keep track of their progress. Without that data they will fall behind” replied Ms Stanever.

Mrs. Tichon was about to defend her decision more, but before she could say anything about early childhood and the need for free play, Ms. Stanever handed Mrs. Tichon a slip of paper. It was a “write up.” A slap on the wrist but it would come to define Mrs. Tichon’s identity that school year. By the end of the year Mrs. Tichon had accumulated 13 write ups and was considered a “troublemaker teacher.”

On June 9th—the last day of school—Mrs. Tichon packed up her room and took all of her belongings to her car. She drove home in tears and did not return the following year. She could not break another moral boundary again. She had become a kindergarten teacher because of a passion for igniting a flame of joy in young children and wanting to see them thrive. The system had other ideas.

This vignette was written before the covid 19 pandemic.  It’s a true story.  In fact, before the pandemic I surveyed well over 400 teachers from across the nation.  I wanted to hear directly from them why so many were leaving or about to leave.  The survey responses led me to teachers like Mrs. Tichon (Not real name) who were eager to tell me their stories about the demoralization they faced over the years as a classroom teacher.  

Sadly Mrs. Tichon was not an outlier.  In fact over 90% of the teachers surveyed indicated that they were quitting, going to quit, and/or seriously considering quitting.  Sixty percent revealed being treated for mental health issues that often led to marital problems and declining family dynamics. A majority indicated that they felt compelled to “teach for the test” rather than engage students in deep learning. And nearly all of them saw a future that had no connection to their vocational passions to make a difference in the lives of children. And this was before the pandemic.

At the time of these surveys I had been on my own mission to dispel the myth of the “teacher shortage.”  As a leader in teacher education, I was painfully aware of the declining enrollments in educator preparation programs.  My own teacher credentialing programs had seen a 20% decline over a ten-year period.  My institution was lucky.  Pre pandemic the national decline in teacher preparation programs was around 35% on average.  Some of my colleagues at other institutions watched their programs wither and close.  I met with potential students who wanted to become teachers and sadly listened as their parents spoke up first to remind their children that their chosen career path was not something the family supported.  My own children asked me quite regularly why I had become a teacher because from their experiences watching teachers, “Who would ever want such a crappy job?”

So when the media started telling the public about the “teacher shortage” I knew there was something incredibly misleading about that term.  And then when the solutions to fix the shortage—anybody can teach pathways—started to emerge it became very clear what was going on.  Policy makers were using the empty classrooms of demoralized teachers and the declining enrollments in teacher preparation programs to jam through “solutions” that further eroded the professional status of classroom teachers.  The war on teaching had evolved and the “anybody can teach” surge was deployed in earnest.

And then the pandemic changed the world of education as we know it.  First, teaching and learning went remote.  Teachers and building administrators became heroes.  They figured out ways to get wifi to families without privilege. Free lunches were passed out and sometimes even delivered to hungry students.  Teachers stayed remote for 14 hours a day to meet the needs of children that only had access to remote learning in extremely limited ways. 

Then the shift.  Concerned for their health and the health of the children and the school community, teachers found themselves at the receiving of end of the “Bad Teacher” rhetoric.  And once again, the media and politicians pummeled our schools and teachers for being selfish in this time of great national need—a national babysitter ranks. 

Teachers asked for “safe working conditions.” They asked for masks, covid tests, classroom ventilation systems and the ability to teach remotely when transmission rates were high.  These requests were too much and just more evidence of teacher laziness and not wanting to work.  The heroes had become zeros.  But they went back anyways—and some of them died.

And then, in the middle of teaching during a pandemic, somebody got “offended” when they found out that teachers were teaching the truth about history. “The truth shall set you free!”  Free to lose your teaching license and be on the receiving end of a social distancing nightmare. Now, as we flounder after two years of a pandemic that further demoralized teachers and turned the “shortage” into a full exodus it seems as if the “anybody can teach” crowd actually has won the high ground in the war on teachers and teaching.  In fact, the bar for becoming a substitute teacher has now been lowered.  Required?  High School diploma.

Now what?  Two words and a question mark.

But such a great question. It really is—If you actually take the time to ask it.  

As I look around, I am not hopeful it will be asked.  We are all too busy! Too busy to listen and hear Mr. Chanek explain that, 

“I became a teacher to inspire learners and learning. I wanted to work with explorers, thinkers, researchers and help them become even better at all of this. At first, this is what I did—engage learners.”

“In fact my classroom used to be a community of learners. We supported each other and didn’t label each other. However, things changed at some point. Instead of teaching learners, I had to teach data points. Then we started focusing on all of the deficits a learner brought to the classroom instead of allowing students to learn for understanding. As teachers we were constantly meeting to look at data and using that numerical data to supposedly create the best learning experience. I also noticed myself getting angry at kids who didn’t fit the mold because I felt that they would bring my teaching evaluations down. But my biggest ah ha was when a frightened student—heading into the foster care system—came into my classroom on the first day of testing. While our classroom welcomed him with open arms, another teacher took me aside to see if he was taking the tests. And if so, would his score impact our school’s score? I couldn’t believe what we had become.”

“From that moment I realized that I was being asked to do things that did not benefit kids. I was expected to label them according to some assessment that collected data points. I was expected to teach kids how to read fast instead of for understanding. I was expected to spend all of my professional learning time looking at data instead of actual student work. I wasn’t allowed to teach and students weren’t allowed to learn. I tried to actually teach covertly while playing the data driven/accountability game. It became tiring. I lost of part of my soul. This was not how I had started teaching.”

“I eventually made the decision to leave teaching—I was no longer inspired. I was doing double the work because I was attempting to still do best practice and fulfilling the mandates all while still swimming upstream. I was angry and depressed. My own children and spouse were suffering too.”

“One day I would LOVE to get back in the classroom. However, this will only happen when teachers are allowed to teach and their expertise is valued and not ignored.”

“Just let us teach!”

So simple and so profound.  Let’s let teachers actually engage students. Let’s empower teachers to ignite the passion for learning. Let’s stop being busy and recognize that our teachers are professionals who desire agency and deserve respect. 

Just let them teach!