By July 27, 2015 Uncategorized 8 Comments

The topic du jour among the Oklahoma Edublog community recently has been the expanding teaching shortage in our state. The discussion ignited last Thursday with the report of the OKSDE approving 182 emergency certificates at its monthly board meeting, just five short of the entire total from last year. That got a lot of people’s attention!

Mindy Dennison (This Teacher Sings)  kicked things off with a great analogy of how emergency certification might be viewed in another profession.  The always ardent Claudia Swisher (Fourth Generation Teacher) brought it down to the classroom level to discuss the impact on individual children.

Rick Cobb from Okeducationtruths provided a concrete discussion of certification requirements for teachers and the challenges faced by schools to find highly qualified teachers for every classroom. Anthony Purcell (Random Teacher Thoughts)  compared our state’s challenges to other states also struggling with finding quality educators.

Seth Meier shared a very personal and moving tribute to his brother and a teacher who impacted his brother’s life in his Excellence in Mediocrity blog. And, in his post from earlier today, Scott Haselwood (Teaching From Here) discussed the “value of a teacher” and suggested some great approaches to address this challenge.

Lest anyone conclude that this is a problem unique to Oklahoma during this “golden age of education reformdum,” national blogger Peter Greene (Curmudgucation) provides a oft-hilarious and detailed, state-by-state, report on the national teacher shortage  (as only Peter can).

Greene uses the following analogy to dissect some of the approaches currently being used to address the current nationwide teacher shortage:

It’s not teachers– it’s working conditions conducive to maintaining the nation’s teacher force. If we discovered that our armed forces were comprised of six skinny guys with slingshots, we’d want to know why recruiting was broken, and we’d try to fix it. We wouldn’t try to punish the six guys for not being one hundred bulky man-mountains. We wouldn’t try to make it harder to legitimately get into the armed forces while simultaneously picking up the slack by grabbing random people off the street. And we wouldn’t try to change the job description of a soldier (Anybody who can make a mean face should do) so that we could fill up empty spots without paying any attention to what we were filling them with.

After all of these great words from others, there’s really not much of value I can add to this conversation.

Yet, as you know, I’ve never let that fact stop me before!

So, let me start here.

Even McDonald’s understands this basic premise of economics. When you cannot get good people to work for minimum wage, you need to offer more than minimum wage. And if the Burger King on the other side of town is luring your best employees with recruitment bonuses and higher wages, well, you’re just shit out of luck if you choose to do nothing. If our state continues to set a standard of, “#49 is just fine,” we will always have a teacher shortage.

At the same time, increasing pay and compensation for educators is just one approach to addressing the shortage, yet alone will not solve the problem. The teacher shortage is also not just a conundrum to be resolved by legislators and state department leadership.

It is going to require a concerted effort from ALL of us.

With that as a premise, let me offer this. Instead of looking entirely OUTSIDE of our schools for solutions, it may be appropriate to take a quick glance into the mirror to evaluate our own behaviors as teachers and school leaders.

We might not look as buff as Homer.

However, there are a few honest “reflections” we might see if we took the time.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to focus on improving the quality of our teaching force until we make some headway on increasing the QUANTITY of teachers looking for jobs.

This doesn’t just mean recruiting new teachers to the profession, it means retaining the ones we already have.

To start with, as school leaders we must do everything in our power to ensure our teachers have what they need to do their job. This includes textbooks, school supplies, furniture, technology, as well as access to high quality, meaningful professional development and opportunities for robust collaboration.

It is not fair to hold educators accountable for results if we fail to provide the tools to get the job done. Hard-working, competent teachers want to have the sense that their administrator is working even harder than they are on their behalf. This is basic Leadership 101.

We also need to admit that many schools continue to “eat their young.” Here is what I mean by this statement.

Why do we persist in the practice of assigning our youngest, least experienced teachers to the most challenging schools and the most needy children? Assigning a first-year teacher to the toughest urban school to work with a group of students nobody else wants to is a recipe for disaster. It also perpetuates the trend of having 30% of young educators leave the profession in their first three years.

We have to think of a better approach than to simply allow our best teachers to transfer to the best schools to teach the best students in the best classrooms.  This long-standing practice exacerbates the achievement gap by failing to provide struggling students with the experienced, highly skilled educators they need. I know it’s always been this way, but we need to fix it. This is one instance where the idea of incentive pay may be worth a look.

To attract more quality candidates into the teaching profession, we must also persist in doing all we can to trim our ranks of mediocre teachers and administrators.

I know that this seems in opposition to the first point, but we simply must do a better job of mentoring our ineffective teachers and principals, or, failing that, counseling them out the door.

From my personal experience as a Marine, people choose to reenlist in the Corps because of the pride of being part of an elite organization. Likewise, good teachers stay with a school because they are proud to work there and because it fulfills their purpose of making a difference in the lives of others.

Teachers want to know that their hard work means something. They want to be surrounded by others with similarly high expectations. And, this also means they want to know that somebody is dealing with the under performing teacher down the hall.

In most cases, young teachers need a lot of support and coaching. An overworked administrator lacks the time to effectively coach and/or evaluate thirty teachers in multiple subject areas and grade levels. Research has shown that peer mentoring can be a highly effective approach to improving teacher quality. Yet, surprisingly few schools have systems in place to do this.

We absolutely need our better teachers to invest in their profession with their time and energy…and pay them accordingly. We need to make this type of teacher development a priority instead of the current TLE/OAM/SLO/SOO/VAM BS.

As quoted in Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert’s new publication, School Culture Rewired: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” By tolerating poor behavior/performance of some of our employees, we disenfranchise our high performers.

We also don’t need principals who micromanage every aspect of instruction or school operation. Where possible, leaders should provide high level of autonomy and trust in their people. Leaders also need to lead from the front. Be visible. Set high standards for themselves and others. Be personable and accessible. Value people over processes. Recognize excellence and become intolerant of mediocrity. Be sure others see them having fun and enjoying their job because enthusiasm is contagious. Make decisions and be willing to admit when they’re wrong.

As a final thought, we still have a huge problem with diversity in our schools. We have talked about this problem for years yet have made little progress in making our schools reflect the composition of the larger community. It is a complicated problem and very few seem to be talking earnestly about the challenge of recruiting and retaining non-white, non-female teachers to our classrooms. With the minority population of children now exceeding the percentage of white children in schools, we need to be talking about this a lot more than we are.

I’m not sure I solved any problems with this semi-rant. I may have made a few people uncomfortable, including myself. At the very least, I have reminded myself that I have an important job to do. And, if you’re an educator, so do you.

I also admit I haven’t always “walked the talk” as well as I could. I need to be more accountable to myself.

Make no mistake–the future of our profession depends on how we address the very real problems of today. We need to fix what we can fix. The teacher shortage is solvable if we remain committed to the power of our own leadership.

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