We all know the aphorism: Nature abhors a vacuum. Yet in these post-pandemic times (and in spite of new iterations, the COVID-19 pandemic is largely part of history now) there seems to be a growing wave of resentment toward institutions bleeding over into hatred of people.
The government is no longer a reliable authority. The left demonizes the right and the right blames the left for all the evils of the nation. The fact is there is plenty of blame to go around, and most Americans are somewhere in the middle. Is democracy really dead? Is the republic really over? Maybe, maybe not. But at the moment, both sides seem to be more intent on winning than on governing.
What does the political war have to do with education? Everything. Because every routine, text, plan, and purpose of teaching is so politicized that teachers are either afraid to teach what they know their students need or they quit. Statistics may be the most subtle form of lie, but when there is a teacher shortage of 300,000 in a single year statistics tell a story. Money.com did an excellent article about the reasons 44% of teachers leave the field before they’ve completed five years–data from before the pandemic. Low pay and benefits force 26% to exit–more in places where the cost of living is exorbitantly high. A Yahoo news article on September 6, 2022 told the hopeful story of a Bay Area school district that decided to address the inability for teachers (most of whom have Masters’ degrees) to find housing by asking school parents to provide “a room or small space on their property for our educators.” California has a teachers union, but instead of advocating for better pay, improved benefits, and more classroom autonomy, the CTA spent 1.815 million dollars ensuring the governor survived a recall and another 3.5 million on ballot measures largely unrelated to teachers and teaching in 2021.
COVID made things worse for teachers. An NPR interviewee said, “But this last year was the hardest yet of my career. And after finishing the year just completely drained and demoralized, I felt like there had to be something else out there. I couldn’t do another year like that. With COVID, the workload has increased. Each year, the demands from parents, from legislators, from school districts and the lack of trust and respect that we’ve been given as professionals – I just reached my breaking point.” Another former teacher added, “I mean, any teacher in America will tell you how from 2020, we went from hero to zero. You know, in the spring of 2020, when everybody was, oh, teachers, how do you do it? And then by – it’s summer 2020, get back to work. Go in the schools. You know, take care of our kids. And, you know, just the stress of all that, I think, was a big part of it. And at the end of the day, you know, in – as much as I hate to say it, it was a financial choice. And I had to walk away from a job and a career that I love deeply.” For these and many other teachers who have walked away, the lack of respect for their professionalism stems from politicians who have little to no education experience making policies built on impossible expectations.
It seems like the US education system is being torn down by outside forces: politics of unrealistic expectations, ineffective corporate curricula, and noise about issues that teachers don’t actually have time or training to deal with (e.g. student mental health, community poverty, crime, violence) AND inside struggles: top down dictates for student performance, having to cover for missing a teachers, lack of respect for professional knowledge, and salary that doesn’t match either the education or skill of the teacher. Lee Allen said,
“We have a shrinking pipeline of students going to college and studying to become teachers and even students in college that finished teacher preparation programs aren’t going into the field. And a lot of the people that are staying, if they’re in a bad situation or just trying to hang on until they can get to retirement and they’re not going to be as effective teachers. So you’re losing the highest part of your talent pool like we’ve seen here. Unfortunately, children are the ones that pay the price. But it’s hard because as teachers, we have to take care of ourselves. And we still have individual lives and feelings, and we have mental health to worry about as well. So if things don’t get better, I really do worry about the future.”Lee Allen, 2022 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year, PBS Newshour, August 20, 2022)
Allen has good cause for worry. Unless the political bickering about whose fault it is that US children continuing to lag behind their Scandinavian counterparts stops, the freefall towards Gomorrah (we’re way past slouching –apologies to Judge Bork) will only accelerate. If business is going to be a stakeholder in education, then it needs to be transparent as to exactly what and how corporations will involved themselves. If the goal is to offer US students a “free and equal” public education, the school boards, superintendents, and elected officials must listen to both teachers (who have the required expertise) and parents (who know their kids) and build something before the black hold of chaos ruins any hope for teaching and learning in neighborhood schools. Are schools going to be social support programs or places of ideas, problem-solving, and communication? More and more young adults are choosing vocational paths away from teaching, a fact that will continue to contribute to teacher shortages and burnout.
Tear it all down, but unless there is a plan for what follows the only result will be chaos.