Every week, it seems as if there’s another disturbing story about how difficult it is to be a teacher in 21st-century America. I’m not talking about the typical day-to-day work of teaching core subjects to children with varied academic and emotional needs — which is already a demanding job, made more so in the challenging aftermath of 2020.
I’m talking about teachers getting fired after criticizing a school district’s ban on students learning a Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus song about rainbows and acceptance; or for attending drag shows on their own time, away from school grounds; or for using a worksheet that went along with a Y.A. novel about a Black teenager being stopped by police. Last year, The Washington Post tallied more than 160 educators who had been fired or resigned in the prior two years due to “culture war” issues. There are reports of harassment and threats emanating from school board meetings.
Of course, I’m also talking about the potentially deadly violence teachers may face just by showing up to work. While school shootings are still statistically rare, in recent years, the number of occurrences has gone up significantly, and it’s hard not to be affected by the drumbeat of news stories about their prevalence — perhaps most indelible is the shooting earlier this year of the first grade teacher Abigail Zwerner in Newport News, Va., by a 6-year-old student.
Last year, my colleagues in Opinion’s video department highlighted the crisis of teachers quitting because they were pushed to their limits by children’s pandemic-related behavioral and emotional setbacks, staffing shortages that forced them to take on roles beyond their normal remit, including lunch and bus duty, and the aforementioned culture war vitriol.
The demoralization of today’s teachers is a problem that may be followed by an even more damaging systemic issue: Fewer college and university students want to become teachers, and the new teacher pipeline is drying up.
“The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years,” according to a working paper published in November by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. In it, Matthew Kraft of Brown and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University at Albany painted a dire picture of the profession:
When I spoke to Kraft, he said that while we’re in a “moment of really acute crisis” right now, the “trend of declining respect and interest and entry and satisfaction in the profession” isn’t new — it started more than a decade ago. He said that while it’s tough to pinpoint, the cause is partly a combination of stagnant real wages for teachers while wages were rising in other sectors for college-educated workers, the increasing cost of higher education in general, and declining respect for the profession overall.
It’s important to note that teacher shortages are not uniformly spread across schools, districts or states. Kraft told me that where there are shortages “typically cuts along racial and socioeconomic lines.” There are particular shortages in rural schools and for STEM and special education teachers, for example. The shortages may be hitting public schools the hardest, because charter and private schools can be a bit more nimble about payment and staff allocation, but most kids go to traditional public schools, and when the issue is playing out at such a macro level, there may be spillover, Kraft said.
So what can be done to help get more teachers into the profession and keep them there? Cutting the costs of a teaching degree is one lever to pull, whether that’s through student loan forgiveness or college scholarships. Dorinda Carter Andrews, the chair for the department of teacher education at Michigan State University, told me that her school’s teacher preparation program is moving from