kitchen table math, the sequel: Is there a Teacher Shortage?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Is there a Teacher Shortage?

I got home from vacation last night and was greeted this morning with a front page article in the New York Times bemoaning teacher "turnover." I'm not sure if the article means to imply that there is a shortage of teachers for the schools, a shortage of qualified teachers for the schools, or just a lot of teachers swapping jobs.

The article, "Schools Scramble for Teachers Because of Spreading Turnover" starts by mentioning the high rate of teacher retirements and the stress of working in low performing schools, then says that this combination of events is "fueling a crisis in teacher turnover that is costing school districts substantial amounts of money as they scramble to fill their ranks for the fall term."


But I've been hearing dire warnings for at least a decade about this teacher shortage. So I'm a little skeptical. There seem to be plenty of classroom teachers to go around, the last time I looked, but I would have to agree that qualified teachers in math and science are harder to find.

Back to the article, Guilford, NC apparently has hired new teachers for every class every term.

This is different from a shortage, and the Times is careful not to call it a shortage of teachers. But teachers do seem to switch schools frequently.

I'm not sure if this is a problem or not. It might well be the way a market has to correct itself. If we allow teachers to move around freely, no one is likely to stay where they hate their job, if they can get a better one somewhere else. Perhaps Guilford, NC should look at what's going on in the classrooms that no one wants to stick around for very long. Maybe the pay is too low, maybe the curriculum is too stupid to teach, maybe the administrators are horrible people to work for. I don't know, but if there's a lot of teachers moving around, it might be a good idea to ask why.

The Times article is not all that interested in asking why. I find this disappointing. The article talks about the efforts schools make to recruit and retain, and pay is at the top of the list, not surprisingly.

If you read deep into the article -- page 13 -- Thomas G. Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future is quoted as saying,
"Our teacher preparation system can accomodate the retirement rate. The problem is that our schools are like a bucket with holes in the bottom, and we keep pouring in teachers."
I find this weird. If the ed schools are pumping out enough teachers to compensate for retirements, why is there a problem? And there does seem to be a problem. Carroll's Commission calculates that 1/3 of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone.

This is astounding. After spending years of going through ed school, getting certified, and surviving practice teaching, 1/2 of all teachers are gone in 5 years?

Here's a question worth pondering, if people are giving up teaching after devoting years of their time preparing for it, maybe they weren't very well prepared for the reality of a classroom? Maybe ed schools are the problem? If teachers were better prepared to succeed in the classroom, i.e., if they knew how to help kids learn, maybe they'd stick around longer.


Unknown said...

"If we allow teachers to move around freely, no one is likely to stay where they hate their job, if they can get a better one somewhere else."

What do yo mean _if_?

I do agree that we have to look carefully at the preparation of teachers, but as a veteran teacher I can tell you that there is no way to adequately prepare a person fully for the first year of teaching. One just has to get through it.

I think the more important thing to look at is mentoring. In all other professions, a new college graduate enters his or her new career at the bottom, with limited responsibilities. They gain new responsibilities as they are ready. In teaching, a new college graduate has the same responsibilities as a 30-year veteran.

I was fortunate to have a wonderful mentor teacher during my first 3 years of teaching, but I was lucky. Most of my colleagues were assigned burnouts who wanted to collect the extra pay at the end of the month. It seems to me that a school or district that wishes to keep its new teachers must develop a mentoring program that will help teachers with all the aspects of their new jobs, and will limit the 'extras' that a new teacher is asked to perform. A good professional development program will address the very stressful issues of parent-teacher conferences, special education laws in the classroom, differentiation strategies, and grading techniques that adequately assess student (and teacher) progress.

Redkudu said...

I agree with Meghan about the first year (though I will say I believe ed schools could prepare teachers better than they do). The first year just has to be gone through. It is different from any experience any person will have in the first year of any job.

It is, as Meghan points out, mentoring which makes the difference. The mentoring must take place not only in the first year, but in subsequent years. I'm currently mentoring a third year teacher from a different state. He has already expressed how different things are with us - stricter, more defined. Because of that, he's feeling a lot more pressure than when he was allowed to do whatever he wanted (or, rather, was left to his own devices), and he's already feeling frustrated at reflecting back on how little was asked of him, and how little was provided him in terms of concrete teaching strategies.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally I have just last week started reading yet another math teacher blog. This one is from a brand new teacher in New Orleans who has been assigned to teach 6th grade math and science. It's really eye-opening. Her students range in age from a young 11 to at least 14.

LANGUAGE WARNING: Some of her language is a little rough and you might not want your 6th grader reading it (but your 6th grader probably knows these words already and is trying them out behind your back).

dorophoria: tales from the new orleans public education abyss and other stories

The teaching posts start in early-mid July. I recommend starting there and reading forward. Some excerpts:

July 11:

I will be going in for my new teacher orientation here in a few. Last night I had some serious New Teacher/New School Year Anxiety of the type that keeps you awake several hours past bed time trying to plan the perfect classroom, create the perfect set of classroom rules, and devise the most brilliant set of classroom procedures that ever were. What am I going to do on my first day of school? How can I effectively integrate the math and science curricula? Can I handle a class full of half-sized people who think math is boring? What if the 7th grade teacher gets my kids next year and they haven't learned anything?

July 12:

I got my hands on the teacher's edition of my math text book. ... [T]his book is flipping complicated.

August 2:

I got my class rosters today as well as my schedule. The class list is full of names that I have never seen before and many that I have no clue how to pronounce. ... I am thoroughly, paralyzingly terrified. But there is also that little twinge in my gut that I got when I looked over my list this afternoon. These are my kids. And even though I know that they will probably give me hell and keep me awake at night and hate my guts and push my buttons and struggle all the way, I want them to have everything. ... They're my kids and they are going to kick ass and I think they're awesome. Every last unpronounceable one of them.

August 4:

It is really difficult to plan lessons when you have no idea what your students already know. Even harder when you don't know when your math books are going to show up. Even harder when you're just not sure how well your students will cooperate with you and with each other. What do I need to do to prepare them for everything that I want them to be able to do? ... How can I plan for an objective when I don't even know where to look for it?

August 5:

This is probably because I grew up in the typical nuclear family, but making the parent phone calls today is totally awkward and weird. Am I looking for a mom? A dad? A grandmother? The mom isn't home and the dad is there but he doesn't actually live there. Another mom (I think...?) really doesn't sound like she gives a rat's ass what time school starts. More than a few of the numbers I have are disconnected or just plain wrong. I'm about half way through my calls and the thought of finishing is very discouraging.

August 10:

Before I say anything else, let me just say this: I love teaching. I really do love it, even after only one week. One week of hope and hell. I go to work every morning an hour early at 7:15ish and I don't leave school until after 4:00. When I go home, I work until I go to sleep. Tomorrow is Saturday and I will be working. Sunday I will be working, planning and strategizing. And Monday I go back into the fire to battle it out again.

August 13:

I got punched today.

August 16:

Word on the street is that our school is the dumping ground for kids who can't cut it elsewhere.

August 23:

You want to keep them safe. You want to undamage them. But there is only so much anyone can do. So you just keep going on doing what you can and hope that it is enough to get them safely to the point at which you have to let them go and hope someone else will be there to catch them.

August 26:

There is a crazy amount of paperwork to keep up with and my meager filing system is not yet up to the task. I need a file for each student, files for lesson plans, files for activities, files for school handouts, files for discipline documentation, files for nurse notes, files for tests, files for assignments to grade and assignments that have been graded.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was just about to leave a comment saying this is something teachers have to weigh in on....and I see that teachers have weighed in!

Offhand I would cite a "management" problem as a matter of definition, since as I understand it, it's management's job to recruit, hire, and retain staff.

I'm defining management broadly, however, because from where I sit there's so much regulation of the schools that administrators have little room to maneuver.

On the "parent" side of things it is ROUTINE to say (and hear) that new teachers are "thrown to the wolves."

Ed has said it, I've said it, friends of mine have said it -- and in each case we were talking about our own kids here in Irvington, who are a good lot.

But the truth about kids, including well-brought up kids, is that when you put a bunch of them together pack behavior sets in.

To me the "thrown to the wolves" analogy is precise.

Humans co-evolved with dogs; we've been genetically influenced by dogs and they have been genetically influenced by us. (Or, rather, I should say that I subscribe to the hypothesis of human co-evolution with dogs....)

A brand-new teacher in a roomful of kids really has been thrown to the wolves!

(Must deal with the kids - will read the comments tomorrow.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I'd love to hear what teachers think about the idea of making teacher training more like medical school (without the all-nighters----!)

The idea would be less coursework and more on-the-job training, similar to residencies for medical students.

This has always sounded sensible to me, but I'm sure I'm missing a lot.

In any case, to me it's just OBVIOUS that a brand-new teacher HAS TO HAVE older hands looking out for him/her, showing him/her the ropes.

Kids are tough.

Very, very tough.

And I think everyone knows I say that with lots of affection.

Catherine Johnson said...


I'm not being clear.

When I said that management's job is to recruit, hire, and "retain" staff, I meant that it's management's job to do what Lynn said, which is to analyze why teachers are leaving and what needs to be done to retain them.

Catherine Johnson said...

This is a huge issue for me here in Irvington.

The baby boomer teachers are all leaving; I'm desperate for the district to find some way to retain them.

This isn't on anyone's agenda.

If it were up to me I'd be looking at establishing career paths that give expert teachers promotions to a higher job status (master teacher, "teacher of teachers," something along those lines) and reduces teaching load.

I don't know what teachers think about these things, but absolutely, as a parent, I want to see a career path and an organizational structure that puts expert teachers "in charge of" novice teachers.

(Mentor is great if that works; I don't care about the authority structure. I just want to see expert teachers overseeing things somehow.)

LynnG said...

Meghan, you make a good point -- those first few years are incredibly difficult. Probably more difficult than they need to be. Mentoring is one way of getting teachers better prepared. But I think ed schools have got to take the lions share of the blame.

I can't think of any profession that can experience a 50% attrition rate year after year without doing some serious sole searching about whether or not the institution responsible for creating the professionals is doing a good job. Ed schools are insulted. Blame the kids, blame the parents. But ed schools need to do more than pedagogy and child development. Teachers simply aren't ready to jump into the job, and ed schools could do better.

As for "all other professions" slowly working new entrants in at the bottom with limited responsibilities -- well, have you ever seen what a first year resident goes through? There's a reason you don't want to get sick at the beginning of July. (The residents begin their new posts on July 1 across the country. This is the most dangerous time to get admitted to a hospital. Limited responsibility, my a**.

I've seen many a first year lawyer overwhelmed by their lack of mentoring and magnitude of their responsibilities. And I've never seen an administrator chew out a teacher the way I've seen senior partner demolish a new hire just for the fun of it.

I'll bet other professions have similar stories. It's tough all over to get out of school and jump into a demanding job. Why is it that teachers are so unprepared for how hard it's going to be?

Doctors, lawyers, engineers and others go through hell in their training, in their schooling. There's lots of pressure. There is very little sleep. Things are tough. And a little cut throat too.

PaulaV said...

I cannot imagine being a first year teacher or any teacher for that matter. It must be difficult.
However, as a parent, I do not want to hear how hard it is to teach. My son's first year kindergarten teacher told me one day, in front of her students, that "everyone thinks teaching is so easy. Well, it's not."

I think I remember just staring at her for a second and telling her of course it wasn't easy. I mentioned my sister was a former teacher. I tried to let her know that I understood the pressure she was under. I volunteered in the classroom and the kids were just great. However, she seemed stressed and unhappy. She had lots of help in her room...a teacher's aide and parent volunteers every week.

Looking back, clearly this was someone who needed a mentor or a career change. Perhaps she realized she didn't want to teach kindergarten, I don't know.

All I do know is my son will not have the chance to experience kindergarten again. It's over.

Therefore, no more first year teachers for me. I am positive there are young and vibrant first year teachers out there, but unforutnately my son didn't have one.

So, no more first year teachers for me. No thanks. Last year, left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

concernedCTparent said...

This year, our town high school (enrollment @800) has a new principal and eleven new teachers. A good number of those teachers has only student teaching experience. While my children aren't going to high school yet, it makes me wonder what systems are in place to support these new teachers (and new principal) so that they, in turn, can properly support the students.

Anonymous said...

How many leave the profession to have a family? My brother left teaching to take care of the kids because his salary would not cover day care expenses.

Anonymous said...

don't miss jd2718's recent
post on teacher turnover.