Secret Lives of Teachers Amidst a Teacher Shortage Crisis

In the US and in many countries around the world, teachers are leaving the profession. To address acute teacher shortages, policy-makers have begun hiring international teachers for US or UK schools or bringing in hires with limited prior preparation for teaching through such organizations as TFA, its global partners, or other alternative programs. While these temporary solutions may partially address immediate needs, they don’t solve the underlying problems that have contributed to the current teacher shortage crisis.

Part of the problem is not just what solutions are offered and how effective they are, but also how the problem is framed. Reformers, policy-makers, and edupreneurs often claim that teachers don’t stay in schools because they lack practical preparation necessary for the job. In other words, their argument is that teachers leave the profession because of low quality teacher preparation they receive. While teacher preparation may contribute to some of the challenges teachers face, I would argue it constitutes only a minor part of what pushes them out of the profession.

This summer my husband started teaching third-grade at a local public school on an emergency license. Since school started three weeks ago, I have been watching the transformations he has been undergoing and the struggles he has been facing. In many respects, he has been quite fortunate to get a job at a school that has a good reputation, in general provides support to its teachers, and conveys to the children a message of love. Those are all very important perks.

But there are many challenges.

First, the salary. He was very fortunate that his ten years of teaching experience across a variety of contexts count. His starting salary is not that of a beginning teacher but that which a teacher with ten years of experience would normally make. He was also very fortunate to have his master’s and doctorate count. That added several thousand to his pay. Even with all of these additions, however, he is barely making $47,000. On a personal level, we have the privilege of being a two-income household with my employer covering my health insurance. If I did not have a job and insurance coverage, we would have struggled financially, even with all the pay additions he received. On the policy level, his salary presents a bit of a conundrum. The news sources in Arizona state that the average teachers’ salary is $49,000. With many teachers leaving after three years and very few veterans staying in schools, the claim about average salaries is deeply puzzling.

Second, the job is physically overwhelming. Every day he comes back home exhausted after 12 or 14-hour long days. He is on his feet all day, constantly surrounded by kids, eating at best on the go, barely having time to use the bathroom. When he comes home, he can’t sit down and relax. He has to prep for the next day or run out to get supplies. By 8, his eyes glaze. By 9, they turn red. By 10, he’s out, even if he still has prep to finish for the next day. During weekends, it is grading and prepping time. There are things that we still manage to do around the house, but most of the time he has to spend catching up on things for work. His feet hurt, his back hurts, his shoulders hurt. We have taught in many different contexts around the world but nothing has ever taken such a toll on him.

Third, the job is taxing psychologically and emotionally. He has 31 third-graders in his class. Keeping them on task, getting them to do their work, and making sure that they learn is challenging for numerous reasons. They are chatty and hard to manage. Some of the kids have serious problems they are dealing with. He often finds out about them only after crises flare up and melt-downs happen. All of this falls on his shoulders. As the primary adult responsible for all these children, he has quite a burden to carry.

Fourth, there is little time left during the school day for prepping, organizing the classroom, or getting the materials ready. The one period a day when he could get some of this work done often gets lost on getting kids to and back from special sessions, taking care of his own meetings, or attending to any other unplanned emergencies. The printer and the copier can break down and no one receives any information about when they will be back up. The projector in his classroom has been broken since day one. If it worked, it would have greatly helped with instruction or mitigated the absence of teaching materials when the printer breaks down. Together all these problems only further exacerbate an already challenging situation.

Fifth, there is the question of what position teachers occupy in the school. The curriculum in use is scripted and even though some administrators accept the possibility that teachers should have some freedom in how they implement it, there are still expectations of what needs to be covered on what day and at what speed. Most of the children in the school come from households that live below poverty line; for most of them, English is not their first language. His school also has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the area. Yet those factors have little bearing on how teachers and children will interact with the curriculum. There are mind-numbing PD sessions where the person in charge mostly clicks on links on the curriculum webpage. There are also moments where taking time off (because I had my citizenship ceremony) is regarded with great suspicion and distaste. His team is considered the team of trouble-makers (let’s say he is fortunate to be a part of a team) because they are critical thinkers who are concerned about matters of equity and social justice in their work. Teams that are more appreciated by the administration are the teams that are less critical of what they are asked to do. Together these factors underscore how (micro)managed teachers are and how “professional” becomes less and less applicable to the positions they occupy in schools.

Sixth, (and my list can go on but I will stop soon), there is that fleeting moment that can keep a teacher in a classroom despite all the other challenges – the moment when children’s eyes lit up and they have their “aha” moments. While he is happy to share the stories of when children got excited because they understood something or were finally able to do a math problem that they could not figure out before, those moments are hard to create in a classroom with 31 children and uneven external support. In the beautiful moments when children see a bug in the hallway and stop to look at it, instead of engaging with their curiosity and sense of wonder, he has to keep reminding them that there are rules and procedures to be followed – “voices off” and hurry to the next class. Most traumatizing are the tests. When parents brought their children in before school started, many commented on how stressed out their children become when they have to take tests. District pre-tests have already taken a day away and caused some of the children worry about how their performance on these pre-tests will affect their report card. The real doozy is coming in March and April when one test after another will take away most of the instruction time and any hope that learning can ever be fun (or worthwhile on its own terms).

There is so much more that can be and should be said and none of this is new. Anyone who has spent time in schools teaching or observing teachers would have seen a version or at least some parts of what I am describing. The situation is different in private schools, as a recent book “Secret Lives of Teachers” suggests. The situation might be a little better in suburban schools. But those are also not the schools where most of teacher flight is happening. It is schools like the one where my husband is now teaching that have to put a clause in teachers’ contracts that if they leave before the end of the school year, $2500 will be deducted from their salaries to cover a permanent sub. Even though it is a good school as far as urban public schools go, the HR have seen enough turnover to incorporate this clause into all new contracts.

The point is that what has become of teaching in the last fifteen years is dehumanizing to teachers and to students. It robs most people involved in the schooling processes of dignity, meaning, and joy. Concerns over teacher shortages – and the quality of education in general – are awfully misplaced if teacher education is blamed for what is currently happening in K-12 schools. In light of teachers’ experiences, suggestions that better-prepared teachers will make better schools are deeply misguided.

Collectively, we need to re-think what is happening to public education when people who turn schools into for-profit enterprises run the show. We also need to think more carefully about the role of educational research in this crisis situation. While teacher preparation may indeed need to be improved, educational researchers and teacher educators should build alliances and support teachers and communities they serve in the struggle for more equal educational opportunities for all. Many are already doing this. But I wonder how the situation could change if there was a more consolidated response from the field. I also believe that it is important to remember that this is not a uniquely American crisis. Similar and much worse struggles are happening around the world and it is worthwhile to re-imagine how solidarity among teachers, educators, and researchers can be built across national borders.

On a more personal note, if you are teaching at a public school in Arizona or know someone who is or has taught here in the past, I am looking for folks who might be willing to have a conversation about their experiences. I promise confidentiality and anonymity, but hope that different teachers’ stories and narratives will help stimulate a conversation about a much-needed change in schools. If you might be interested to have a conversation, please, email me helen.aydarova@gmail.com.

first day of school