Commentary: It’s time to make working in schools one of the most desirable career paths
Katy Knight | May 10, 2023
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As America’s schools continue to face mounting teacher shortages — particularly in low-income communities and crucial subject areas like special education — it’s encouraging to see long-needed legislation like the American Teacher Act and the Pay Teachers Act, which seek to raise the salaries of K-12 educators to at least $60,000.
Either bill would be a major step forward in addressing the worrying vacancies that threaten to widen opportunity gaps across the country. But something far greater than salary dissatisfaction or broken hiring pipelines is at play. Rather, it’s the culmination of complex and unresolved challenges that have faced educators for decades. To truly attract and retain the brightest to the career long term — and ensure that the most at-risk students receive the education they deserve — all aspects of the profession must be improved to meet the standards of today’s overall workforce.
Qualified and eager talent does exist — they’re just shunning the traditional classroom in favor of other jobs or careers that are better adapted to the times. Online schools are a great example of this, as they’ve recently seen a massive uptick in teacher applications and are attracting far more candidates than they’re able to hire. Like all skilled professionals, holders of advanced degrees in education will seek out higher pay and a better work-life balance if schools cannot provide them with what they need.
As executive director of a foundation working to build a more innovative education system for all learners, I know just how vital teachers are to a functioning society. But I also recognize that teaching at its core is a career. If teachers, who are some of the most educated members of the workforce, can make more money and feel less stressed in a different career, why wouldn’t they explore other options? In order to alleviate current shortages and ensure the next generation is prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century, public, private and philanthropic leaders must come together to finally prioritize making teaching a respected and competitive profession.
To start, educators need greater and more capable support systems. While the role of the teacher has expanded exponentially in recent years, its support network has not — as evidenced by skyrocketing levels of stress and burnout, especially in low-income schools. It needs to be easier for teachers to collaborate with colleagues in school as well as other professionals who can supplement classroom learning. This could consist of librarians leading makerspace programming for students to supplement their in-class experiences or development of online platforms that allow educators to share and collaborate on best practices. Examples include the work being done at Citizen Schools and Transcend Education’s Innovation Models Exchange.
Secondly, the profession requires increased flexibility. With the nature of work changing significantly over the past several years, the traditional school structure can no longer compete with other industries that are still remote or hybrid. Though the impact of in-classroom learning is undeniable, education leaders need to consider out-of-the-box ways to give teachers the flexibility that has come to be expected by the 21st century workforce.
One way that schools have traditionally done this is through co- or team-teaching, something districts should certainly continue to invest in. Other innovative thinkers have begun envisioning new models that leverage the expertise of local stakeholders to give teachers greater work-life balance. One such idea from Reimagine America’s Schools is a 3:2 school week, where students spend three days in the traditional classroom and two days learning from business leaders, entrepreneurs, government officials and others in the broader community. Not only does this approach help integrate work-based learning into the curriculum — which many argue can heighten student outcomes — but it provides teachers with the critical downtime and significantly reduces pressure to be the be-all and end-all of students’ experiences.
Lastly, the overall return on investment of becoming a teacher must be elevated. Legislation to increase compensation will go a long way toward reflecting the significance of the job and making teaching competitive with other fields. However, this also requires reducing the cost of getting a teaching degree and making it easier for educators to continue learning throughout their careers. This could involve universities increasing scholarships toward teaching degrees or subsidizing the cost of completing accreditation programs, which is required to teach in most public schools. This also means continuing to invest in professional development to ensure new and veteran educators have the skills they need to succeed today and into the future — like Cornell Tech’s Teacher in Residence program, the Marshall Teacher Residency and Teaching Lab‘s expanding number of tailored professional learning services.
This Teacher Appreciation Week is the moment to focus on improving the profession to meet — and ideally exceed — the standards of today’s workforce. And in doing so, it is time to double down on increasing benefits for all who serve in the nation’s schools, including custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. As recent strikes in Los Angeles clearly demonstrate, schools depend on far more than just administrators and teachers to stay up and running, and this ought to be represented in how they provide for these vital workers.
It’s time to make working in schools one of the country’s most desirable career paths.