Yet Another Reason for the Current Teacher Shortage?


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Another day, another story about teacher shortages. Today it's the Vail school district, a sweetheart place to work if there ever was one. Top achievement scores, kids from homes with enough income and education to arrive at school prepared and motivated, a well respected superintendent. Yet Vail has had teacher vacancies all year, and fewer people attended its job fair than usual.

Two solid reasons are given for Arizona's teacher retention troubles. One is low salaries compared to other states. The other is too many kids in each class, aging textbooks and technology along with a lack of basic classroom supplies. And yet, states that are doing both those things better than Arizona are suffering from similar shortages. So let's add the lack of respect teachers experience these days which, in my 30-plus years of teaching experience, is unparalleled.

All of those are important, but I want to add one more possibility to the mix. Every prospective teacher was once a K-12 student. What if their school experiences since the introduction of No Child Left Behind in 2001 have soured them on the idea of going from college back to the classrooms they left a few years earlier?

I have a theory based on talking with fellow teachers over the years. I think people decide to teach at a certain grade level because that was their favorite time in school. Me, I liked elementary school well enough, it was OK. I actively disliked middle school (known in my time and place as junior high). I really felt like I blossomed in high school, those were my favorite, most memorable school years. I never considered teaching elementary school, that was out, so I got a secondary credential. The year I was applying for my first teaching position, jobs were scarce, and I told myself if the only school that offered me a contract was a middle school, I'd take a year off and try again. For me, it was high school or nothing. Fortunately, I got a high school job, and the rest is history (or really, the rest was English, but that's splitting semantic hairs).

I've asked elementary teachers, "What was your favorite year when you were a student?" They'll almost always talk about a special teacher in the early grades. Middle school and high school teachers also seem to have their fondest memories in the same grades they hopped back into once they graduated college.

But what if today's students have fewer fond memories of school at any grade level than students before the No Child Left Behind era? Drill, drill, drill, test, test, test, stress, stress, stress. Art? Music? Wide ranging discussions which follow their own meandering, fascinating course? There's no time for those frivolous wastes of precious class time that can be more productively spent on drilling and testing and stressing. The score's the thing, the score is king.

From the time I was a college junior, I wanted to get back into a high school classroom with a bunch of adolescents and recreate the school experiences I had, this time from the other side of the teacher's desk. But I wonder if No Child Left Behind-era memories create a nostalgia for those good ol' school days. Instead, do students tend to look back, even years later, and say, "Thank God that's over"? Do some people who might have decided on teaching a few decades earlier say, "You couldn't pay me enough to be a teacher"?

I have a hunch the classroom experiences of students over the past fifteen years are factors in their decisions not to teach. Of course, I don't have any numbers I can crunch to back up my hypothesis, so in this era when hard data reigns supreme—even if it's lousy hard data, it's supposed to be more important than any subjective analysis or conjecture—I suppose my hypothesis is worthless. But here's a personal thought. I wonder, if I were a college junior today, would I be excited at the prospect of working in today's educational atmosphere, even if my salary was adequate, even if my class sizes were reasonable? I honestly don't know the answer.

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