The Endangered Teacher

According to Washington Post, teachers shortages this year are worse than ever. This shortage is showing up in every state, most districts, and almost every subject area. When I was in graduate school just a decade ago, they told me that I would join the stock pile of dime-a-dozen English teachers sword-fighting for the few open positions in the county. I was one of the lucky ones who got a real job, but I had friends that ended up in church basements at private schools that paid something like 30 bucks a month and had units on how dinosaurs were fake and the earth was only 3000 years old.

Sure, there were jobs for physics teachers, but physics was awful. Who wanted to do that?

Wealthy suburban districts with marble cafeterias and ATMs in their lobbies were shifting through stacks of 300 resumes for each open position. Even in Pittsburgh, my own district, there were teachers filling application portals with each bit of information that may get their name moved to the top of wait-lists compiled using complicated algorithms and advanced metrics.  

Teachers were moving with their families to appalachia and further south to the promise of jobs, albeit low-paying jobs, as if it were some kind of teaching rite of passage. Working for 20 grand a year in the mountains of Kentucky seemed better than making soy-lattes at starbucks, so they migrated.

But magically, all of those teachers are gone now. It’s as if there was a 7-year teacher ice age, freezing out the droves of eager college grads who once filled the massive lines of unemployed teachers. While I’m sure there are some districts with big salaries and futuristic school buildings that still have some applicants, the pool of teachers that used to be waiting in the wings for each available job is drying out. There is no wait-list in urban America anymore, and there is no need to run to the church basements and the foothills of West Virginia. Teachers are endangered, and pushing toward extinction. You can still find them in their natural habitat, roaming dusty hallways and classrooms, but they are vanishing. And we should be worried. 

This makes for catchy headlines and gives the pro-teacher crowds some ammunition, but we often lose the realities of this in these diluted conversations. What this means, in short, is that the most struggling schools are left without teachers in really important positions. Large neighborhood high schools in most cities are struggling to find upper level math and science teachers. Physics and Calculus classes are filled with substitutes or abandoned altogether. Ineffective teachers gain more worth, because “at least they are better than than long-term sub.” The districts and schools that others deem as “less-desirable” because of pay or culture or climate or neighborhood or whatever, become springboards that people use to pad their resume for the job of their dreams, the school where the science rooms look like a NASA design lab.

Teachers shortages mean that our black, brown, and poor schools are going to be hit the hardest. It takes a long time for something like this to hit home in largely affluent, largely white suburban districts, but we are facing a reality where upper-level classes that are critical for college success are leaving many of our schools, as the teachers to teach them simply don’t exist.

And as a society, we have no counter to this trend. The schools with the least teacher shortages also pay the best, while the schools without science teachers are at the bottom of the list of average pay. Instead of paying people for working in the jobs that few applicants seem to want, we do exactly the opposite. As is so often the case, we double-down on bad ideas. Districts with stockpiles of money are able to up the anty a bit to make sure that they are still pulling the best candidates, while poorer districts are left with day-to-day subs in Algebra 2.  

Hey, do poor people really need physics? AP classes are a luxury, right?

It’s seems like our plan at this point is to bank on the super-teacher. We mask important conversations behind words like “calling” and talking about how this has to be “more than a job” for people. These are really just excuses for low-pay and poor work conditions.

It seems the teacher gods aren’t working hard enough on their “callings” these days. And in case those teacher gods let us down, maybe we should have a backup plan.