As dust from the pandemic settles, students across America are facing another disruption to quality education. This crisis, however, shouldn’t be a surprise. It is two centuries in the making.
The most recent legislation introduced in Congress, which would see a minimum salary base of $60,000 for public school teachers, is certainly a welcome step in the right direction. However, it still misdiagnoses the problem; burnout will still occur, regardless of the paycheck. That’s why we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of a teacher in the modern classroom.
The teacher job description crafted in the 1800s by the Common School Movement led by Horace Mann served a one-adult-room-full-of-kids model with the goal of civilizing American children. Hopefully, in the year 2023, we can aspire beyond assimilation as the goal of education and aim for creating learning spaces that value diversity and support every student in reaching their full, authentic potential.
That higher goal requires recognizing that, today, we are asking one teacher to perform too many functions, in not enough time, and for too little compensation. As an educator, I know that we are asking individual teachers to be a content area expert, instructional designer, academic coach, family communicator, interior designer, and social-emotional monitor with limited support.
We rely on the teacher’s desire to make a difference to keep them in the profession, but we’ve maintained a system that makes it increasingly elusive to make that difference. Systemic burnout forces teachers to leave the profession, while stagnant pay and the plummeting reputation of the profession prevents promising educators from joining in the first place.
To address the shortage, I suggest we knock down the walls erected by the one room schoolhouse. My proposition, the “Teaching Without Walls model,” recognizes that teaching the whole child includes multiple roles: instructional designer, academic coach, and social-emotional monitor. Let’s not limit our classrooms by looking for one person who can fulfill all of those roles independently. Let’s build on the technology applications learned during pandemic remote instruction. In the same way that businesses have lowered geographic barriers to expand hiring opportunities, school districts can seek beyond local candidates to connect certified teachers with underserved classrooms.
Envision a classroom of students engaging with a dynamic teacher visible through movie-sized monitors. This certified teacher, with subject matter and research-backed instructional design expertise, can be across the district, country, or world. A qualified math teacher from North Carolina could describe algebra to students in Nebraska, while a physics teacher in Maryland could describe an exothermic reaction to students in Milwaukee. Technology can remove barriers to hiring teachers with expertise. When mathematics and sciences face the largest exodus, the importance of freeing this knowledge from the confines of geography shouldn’t be underestimated.
Students still need in-person relationships. The local classroom includes academic coaches giving feedback and making sure students make progress, along with social-emotional monitors fostering community and supporting wellness. These roles also communicate with families and ensure that the classroom is a welcoming space.
There is, of course, an obvious objection: “You can’t solve a teacher shortage by hiring more teachers.” Spreading the reach of the teacher expertise across many classrooms while including in-person coaches does not necessarily increase overall headcount any more than the current fill-the-gaps measures would.
If you want a glimpse of the teacher shortage crisis, just look at the data. According to the National Survey released this week by the National Education Association, 53 percent of public schools report being understaffed at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, with a further 60 percent reporting severe shortages since the start of the pandemic.
These shortages are, unsurprisingly, exacerbated across racial and income lines. According to analyses of several decades, it is non-White children living in the most neglected neighborhoods, who are most likely to suffer at the sharp end of the teacher shortage crisis.
In many cases, the government’s response only makes this crisis worse. State policymakers have expedited teacher certification and lowered the requirements for obtaining emergency substitute teaching licenses. Some states have even permitted the emergency hiring of untrained teachers.
Hiring more underprepared teachers and then expecting them to perform the role of three people will exacerbate the crisis. If we are hiring yet-to-be certified professionals, they can first be trained in the roles of academic coach and social-emotional monitor while an expert instructional designer (unbound by geography) can ensure that students have access to quality lessons.
A rethinking of distance limitations provides an opportunity to increase teacher compensation to be commensurate with other professionals that require the same level of expertise. Indeed, research from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that teachers earn approximately 20 percent less than those with similar, nonteacher degrees. Research shows that each new hire in a school can cost more than $20,000, and this investment doesn’t pay its dividend if that teacher leaves within 2 years. By implementing policies that boost retention, we can afford to pay teachers what they deserve and retain their expertise.
“Teaching Without Walls” is not an easy, silver-bullet solution, and will certainly be state- and school-specific. I’m not suggesting that we triple the number of teachers in every classroom. Instead, we should focus our attention on broader solutions in the areas where students are already lacking a qualified teacher. This approach will require transforming teacher professional learning and collaboration, but there are research-based approaches that make this doable.
Reactionary proposals, however, offered by people who have never taught a class of young people with hopes and fears, traumas and dreams, will deepen the hole dug by our current system.
Our youth deserve a reimagining, and not a regurgitation, of failed proposals. World-class learning is possible, but only if we free ourselves from the “way we’ve always done things” and apply the technology-enabled solutions made commonplace from the pandemic.
By recognizing and valuing the different forms of teaching expertise, we can build a profession that is attractive, rewarding, and most importantly, sustainable. That is a viable way to attract new talent into the profession, and ultimately, keep it there.
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