A Shortage of Respect

Back in March, education blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher, Peter Greene (curmudgucation.blogspot.com), wrote this about the nationwide teacher shortage:

If you want to buy a Lexus for $7.95 and nobody will sell one to you for that price, that is not a sign of an automobile shortage. If you want to hire a surgeon to cut your grass for $1.50 an hour and nobody will apply for the job, that is not a surgeon shortage. If you want people to become teachers under the current job conditions (and that is a large-ish if because it’s possible that some folks think it would be easier to run education if teachers would all just go away), and fewer and fewer people are biting, that is not the sign of a teacher shortage– it’s a sign that you need to make your job more attractive. This seems obvious to me. We’ll see if anybody in power can figure it out.

It would seem reasonable to believe that with recent state budget cuts and concomitant reductions of teaching positions in most school districts across Oklahoma, the teacher shortage would not be nearly as pronounced as last year.

As we know, last year’s shortage of certified teachers in Oklahoma necessitated the awarding of nearly 1,000 emergency teaching certificates by the state Board of Education.

Yet, we learned today that Tulsa Public Schools, despite reducing its staffing by over 100 teachers this fall, is still faced with a significant challenge filling their available positions.

As reported in the Tulsa World, with less than 7 weeks until the start of a new school year, TPS is struggling to fill all of its openings:

“We have 62.5 vacancies, compared to 126 this time last year. That’s about half less, but we still have 62.5 vacancies,” said Deputy Superintendent Paula Shannon. “The biggest misperception is that people think we laid off teachers. We reduced positions. Teachers weren’t laid off. Positions were eliminated, and with the teacher shortage crisis in Oklahoma, we just have a hard time having teachers stay in this city and state.”

Shannon went on to explain that the district had received only 518 completed applications this summer, compared to 848 this time last year, a reduction of 330 applicants.

With Tulsa-area districts reducing over 300 teaching positions collectively, it would seem to make sense to have MORE applicants for the jobs that are available, not fewer.

This is clearly not the case.

The shortage is especially challenging in the areas of special education, elementary education, English language development, science and math.

It is not only TPS. In my own district of Sand Springs, we had a secondary mathematics position posted for nearly two weeks before getting even one certified applicant. It’s certainly not what anyone can call a “buyer’s market.”

It has always been somewhat of an oddity of teacher-related education policy. There is this presumption that teachers must be teachers, that they cannot choose to be anything else. This is not true. People may choose to be teachers. As with NBA players, teachers may also choose to take their skills to other states with higher pay or other advantages. Or they may choose to do something else altogether. That appears to be happening a lot more.

The end result is that our state still has a teacher shortage.

Do we really wonder why? Can anyone honestly be surprised that Oklahoma schools are having such a difficult time filling classrooms with high-quality, appropriately certified educators?

It has been part of the education “reformers” plan from day one. And, it involves more than just pay.

Compensation is just one of many ways our society shows it’s respect for teachers. We are falling short in other areas as well.

I wrote about this plan in more detail several years ago (“Ruining the Teaching Profession”). At that time, I shared a “five-step” recipe for the ruination of the teaching profession:

  • Reduce funding for public education while increasing expectations and mandates.
  • Disparage and “deprofessionalize” the teaching profession.
  • Damage the students.
  • Reduce evaluation of teaching effectiveness to a number.
  • Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

In large part, the first two bullets have been successfully implemented by the reform crowd.

The sense of mission, the dedication to a higher purpose, and the autonomy to make a difference in the world by using one’s own unique skills and gifts– that has all been increasingly stripped from the teaching profession with the last 15 years of education reforms and initiatives.

In short, the message the reformers have been preaching to our society is, “there’s nothing particularly special about being a teacher.”

And, regrettably, a significant element within our society agrees.

Some go even further by labeling teachers as the central “problem” with our education system. That’s a little like attributing the challenges America faces with our medical system to physicians.

You see, after “reformers” sufficiently damage the respect and appeal of the teaching profession–thereby creating a teacher shortage–it becomes much easier to  work with policy makers to make it legal to hire more and more (and cheaper and cheaper) less experienced and/or non-certified teachers. This, in turn, lowers the level of respect for the profession and further feeds the cycle.

It’s a twofer – bust the teachers’ unions and make a profit at the same time. And guess which neighborhoods and school districts will likely have the bulk of the newly-certified, inexperienced teachers? Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

But, to go along with Greene’s comment above, the issue is more than just a teacher shortage, it’s how we got here in the first place. And, more importantly, what we need to do to address the problem.

As Greene says, when people don’t want to buy what you’re selling, when people do want to take your job under the conditions you’ve set, that is a clear sign that you have undervalued the merchandise.

If we continue to have a shortage of teachers in Oklahoma, what are we willing to do as a state to make the profession attractive to our best and brightest young people?

Our state’s teacher shortage is certainly exacerbated by the current funding problems and lack of competitive pay. Yet, I submit we have a shortage of teachers in Oklahoma today because we have a shortage of respect for teachers today.

And I fear that until the majority of Oklahomans fully and universally respect the value that our teachers bring to our students, schools, and communities, we will be discussing teacher shortages for a long time to come.

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