Last Saturday I had the privilege of selling my teaching memoir, Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher, at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the majority of my customers and visitors were teachers. Everyone who had not yet retired reported the same concerns:
- The kids are not all right. The pandemic and the dysfunction in our country have taken a huge toll.
- The kids are not behaving as well as they did pre-pandemic. They are less cooperative, less engaged, and less friendly.
- We aren’t going to help kids make up academic deficits until we address their mental health issues.
- The controversies swirling around so many districts about what can and cannot be taught are disempowering to teachers and make them question their willingness to stay in the profession.
- Teachers are tired, too. They’ve paid a heavy price during the pandemic, too.
- There’s just too much micro-management.
- The pressure on current teachers to cover empty classes on top of their own load is too great a burden.
I recognize that this is a small group of anecdotes, not a vetted research study. But on Wednesday, when I was joined a group of former colleagues for a tram ride through the spectacular Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, I shared that feedback with them. The woman seated directly in front of me turned around and said, “Both my grown daughters are teachers. They’re in two different states and teach different grades, but that’s exactly what they say!”
Research studies about mental health issues for young people abound. I’ve written about them before, and I’ll write about them again. And we already have a serious teacher shortage and a grossly inadequate pipeline of teachers in training. The response, to let college students [Arizona and potentially Michigan] and veterans [Florida] teach without proper training and certification is not the answer. Even in the best of times, teaching has always required commitment, content knowledge, classroom management skills, and training in effective methods and best practices. Yet teaching may never have been more challenging than it is today, so teachers really need good preparation. We cannot help teachers and students recover unless we make significant changes:
- We need to work on a culture that too often doesn’t value teachers or treat them with respect. Imagine, for example, if the media did more news stories about classrooms that are working well.
- We need to empower teachers to do the decision-making for which they were trained instead of having screaming adults at school board meetings force administrations to surrender decision-making.
- Every teacher needs a living wage and a workable class load.
- We need to expand and develop programs that help teachers-in-training with college tuition in exchange for some years of service teaching in under-served areas after graduation.
- We should provide mentoring for new teachers.
- We must staff mental health positions in schools. The NASP has long recommended a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, yet the national ratio average is 1:1211 and approaches1:5000 in some states [nasponline.org]. The need has never been greater, and classroom teachers have neither the time nor the training to fill it.
I felt so lucky to teach for over 30 years, to know so many students, to work with communities of colleagues. Let’s make sure those still in the classroom get to feel that way. Let’s invest in changes that support both teachers and students. That’s our best hope for retaining teachers and reaching and supporting students.