A trio of columns circulated by the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss should raise alarm about the pressures today driving teachers to leave the profession. An 8th grade language arts teacher from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, Steven Singer describes widespread teacher burnout in this second school year disrupted by COVID-19: “The teachers are not okay.”
Singer continues: “This pandemic has been hard on us. Through every twist and turn, teachers have been at the center of the storm. When schools first closed, we were heroes for teaching online. When they remained closed, we were villains for wanting to remain there—safe from infection. Then there was a vaccine, and many of us wanted to reopen our schools but only if we were prioritized to be vaccinated first. We actually had to fight for that right… We were asked to redo our entire curriculums online, then in-person for handfuls of students in funky two-day blocks, then teach BOTH online and in-person at the same time… According to the Associated Press, the pandemic has triggered a spike in teacher retirements and resignations, not to mention a shortage of tutors and special aides. Difficulties filling teacher openings have been reported in many states including Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota. In the Mount Rushmore State, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies… According to a survey (in June) of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32 percent said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected.”
The superintendent in Virginia’s Fauquier County Public Schools, David Jeck wonders: “Who would want to be a teacher right now? Have you seen how teachers are being treated? Teachers have had to endure revolting public comments at school board meetings, floggings via social media… Teachers are indispensable to our society but sadly, they are not treated as such.”
Part of the abuse recently has been about legislation passed in more than two dozen states to redefine and curtail the teaching of American history about so-called “controversial subjects” like slavery and the role of racism. In a significant protest, 135 academic and professional organizations condemned the acrimony about what is being called “critical race theory” and affirmed teachers’ responsibility to teach: “(T)he ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice.” But this sort of pronouncement cannot protect teachers when parents and protesters show up to demand that teachers present “both sides of slavery” and administrators and school boards are pressured not to protect teachers’ rights and responsibilities.
Strauss also featured Larry Ferlazzo, a high school English and social studies teacher in Sacramento and a skilled writer, who explains: “I teach in an almost ideal situation and I’m exhausted after just the first month of this year.” Ferlazzo describes teachers “dealing with the stress of potentially getting COVID-19… coping with the challenge of a substitute shortage requiring teachers to give up all their planning time (or to teach double classes) to cover absences; having to cancel medical appointments and mental health days because of not wanting to burden colleagues by making them cover even more classes… and being overtaxed by providing even more than the usual emotional support we provide to our students.” Ferlazzo prescribes several specific policies that school districts ought to consider implementing as supports for their teachers including: hiring a full-time crew of people to serve as substitute teachers wherever the district needs them; tripling the hourly rate to compensate teachers when they must cover another’s classes; suspending required professional development for this school year; eliminating all district-wide testing during this school year, and supporting the teachers who are under so much added pressure because they are teaching the classes dealing with racism.
The problem for teachers has existed for a long time, and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. In 2009, the former president of the American Educational Research Association and a highly respected professor of pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Gloria Ladson-Billings described growing pressure from No Child Left Behind’s standardized testing regime already undermining the morale of school teachers: “In school districts across the country public school teachers find themselves pitted against everything from choice, vouchers, private, and for-profit schools that do not have the same mandate that they do—to educate every student who walks through the door regardless of racial, cultural, linguistic, economic, or family circumstances. Teachers who want to try to be creative and innovative in the classroom often are told that a scripted curriculum and a pacing guide are the only answers for what should happen in their classrooms. The joy of helping students discover new ideas or dig deep into the truths of old knowledge is no longer available to most teachers… the terror of the test regime has made that kind of teaching and learning a luxury that few urban schools are willing to abide.” (The DreamKeepers, p. 177)
With all the pressures teachers have been enduring in these years disrupted by COVID-19, I wondered why the U.S. Department of Education refused to cancel standardized tests during during the 2020-2021 school year. A protest letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021 directly named the bias toward teachers in this year’s decision to persist with standardized testing: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist… Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”
In his recent column, Larry Ferlazzo asks school district leaders to “look for ways to acknowledge teachers’ value.” As those of us who are rarely in American classrooms read all the negative press about schools these days, I think it is also helpful more generally to consider reminders from writers who celebrate what it is about teachers that so many of us fail to recognize and honor.
Jonathan Kozol writes: “The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value,’ as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.” Letters to a Young Teacher, pp. 4-5)
Parker Palmer discerns what it is about such public work that makes teachers especially vulnerable: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher… (I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning…. (G)ood teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work… Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching—and in the process, from their students. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11.)
Finally there are the words of the late Mike Rose, who defined excellence in teaching in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform. Rose summarizes what he learned during four years as he visited the classrooms of educators across the United States who had been identified to him as fine teachers—the subject of his wonderful book, Possible Lives: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”