Thank You, Peter Greene!

It was really refreshing to read Peter Greene’s “We Need to Stop Talking about the Teacher Shortage” on earlier this month. Greene’s byline explains that he spent thirty-nine years as a high school English teacher, and now writes on education issues. It’s nice to know that someone with that much ground-level experience is out there countering the ideas from people with only an eagle-eye view.

Here, Greene takes exception with this notion that we have a teacher shortage in America. He begins by using the analogy that, if you tried to buy a car for $1.98 and didn’t succeed, you wouldn’t go tell your friends that there was a car shortage. Or if you tried to dine out in a restaurant for $1, you wouldn’t claim there was a food shortage when you left hungry. The stronger insight would be that you couldn’t get what you wanted for what you were offering. Same thing with education and teachers.  Greene writes:

Calling the situation a “teacher shortage” suggests something like a crop failure or a hijacker grabbing truckloads before they can get to market. It suggests that there simply aren’t enough people out there who could do the job.

There are, actually. But they’re finding other lines of work. And it’s not just money for salaries that keeps those folks away. Again, Green writes:

But over the past couple of decades teachers have also suffered a steady drumbeat of disrespect, the repeated refrain that US schools are failing and terrible, an accountability movement that is more about threats than support. The rise of reforms like Common Core and high stakes testing regimens have meant a loss of professional autonomy for teachers. The rise of alternative pathways and “any warm body will do” solutions send the message that teaching is such a simple job that any shmoe with minimal training can do it.

Back in 2016, I wrote a post called “Tiny Glimmers of Hope” about this very issue, and cited two important facts: first, that the state of Alabama cut education funding by 17.8% between 2008 and 2015, and second, that 40% fewer college students majored in education during that same period. In Alabama, where I live and teach, thousands of education jobs were eliminated in 2009, 2010, and 2011. My question, asked rhetorically, is: who would anyone choose a career field where jobs are disappearing?

In more recent years, though, the jobs are coming back. As the economy has grown, tax revenues have come up from the Recession-era abyss, enabling most school systems to approach to whatever normalcy is now. Meanwhile, the last ten years’ worth of teacher-bashing have taken their toll on the public consciousness. Cash-strapped administrators shamelessly told the media that the remaining teachers would have to “do more with less.” The growth of social media has allowed angry parents to post wildly and prolifically (and often half-truthfully) about all manner of indiscretions (supposedly) committed at their children’s schools. The number of school shootings has increased dramatically, and school names like Parkland joined names like Columbine. The leaders of the school reform movement based their improvement strategy on having the ability to fire teachers. Everybody gave Waiting for Superman and NBC’s Education Nation their rapt attention. And now, the filthy residue left behind by all that highly publicized ire and desperation— that’s what normalcy is now.

So, we can’t find enough people who want to work in that environment. Peter Greene isn’t surprised. Neither should we be. If there were fewer education majors in the early 2010s, there are fewer people becoming new teachers now. With retirements and other departures, education leaders are finding that many job postings going unanswered. I guess they’ll just have to – how did they put it? – do more with less.

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