The Teaching Profession in Crisis

As we near the return to pre-pandemic “normal,” the full extent of the damage is emerging. Amidst the wreckage, America’s bruised and battered teachers are still standing - barely.

It has been infuriating to watch the scorn or indifference directed toward teachers.  They, and teachers unions, have been blamed for failing to open schools or for the suboptimal online programs that have replaced real learning.  All of this compounds the already dismal circumstances under which teachers have persevered for decades.

A few facts:

  • Teachers earn 21.4% less than comparably educated peers.

  • Teacher pay has declined 4.5% in real dollars over the past decade.

  • 20% of teachers work a second job.

  • Teachers use, on average, $500 of their money each year to buy supplies for students.

  • The average workday for teachers is 12-16 hours per day.

  • 55% of teachers wouldn’t want their own children to enter the profession.

  • One poll showed that 62% of teachers were considering leaving the profession.

Teacher shortages were severe before the pandemic and will soon be catastrophic.

Since the destructive advent of the “standards and accountability” era, the intrinsic rewards of teaching have steadily eroded.  It is little wonder that these good people are finally giving up.

Of course the politicians and economists who make policy will just find someone else to do the work.  It takes little talent or humanity to teach from a script and prepare kids for the next exam.  Now, when kids will most need unconditional support, patience and affection, the national policy is to get back to the damn testing.  Whatever modest hopes I had for Miguel Cardona, the new Education Secretary,  have vanished.  He is better than Cruella DeVos, but that is as faint as praise can get.

In keeping with the illogical, inhumane and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find; so as to identify the mythical “learning losses;” so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry; thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most.

During my years as a head of school I would begin admission presentations by asking parents what one-word qualities they most hoped to see nurtured in their children.  “Imagination.” “Sensitivity.” “Humor.“  “Compassion.” “Creativity.” “Kindness.”  The list was always similar.   I would then ask, “Then why might you chose a school for your child that doesn’t value or nurture those things?”  I would go on to ask them to recall the most important and powerful things they recalled of their own education.  Those things were invariably things like; kind teachers, fascinating experiments, field trips, open-ended writing, debates, arts programs . . . I did not ask what was the most fun.  I asked what was most important and powerful.

Make your own mental lists.  I suspect that stress, anxiety, ruthless competition, standardized tests, long nights of repetitive homework and strict discipline are not on your list.   I was then, and am now, astonished that so many people ignore their own instincts and experiences and tolerate the near universality of bad practices in schools.

“Imagination.” “Sensitivity.” “Humor.“  “Compassion.” “Creativity.” “Kindness.”  These are the qualities most teachers value too, but they have little time or support for nurturing them.    “ . . . fascinating experiments, field trips, open-ended writing, debates, arts programs . . .” are how most teachers would like to spend their time with students.  But they can’t.   It is no wonder that so many are considering giving up.   And in the data-driven, metric-fuddled minds of administrators, they can be replaced with any warm body, trained for a few weeks, ready to “instruct” and “test.”  

It reminds me of a time, years ago, when I was briefly considered for a job as president of the Detroit Symphony.  I sat with the Chairman of the Board over lunch as he smugly dismissed the salary demands of the musicians in a labor dispute.  “Hell,” he said, “if they don’t like the salary there are hundreds of recent Juilliard graduates who would love those jobs!”  He had no regard for experience; for the years it takes to craft a great ensemble with a distinct personality; for the importance of relationships; for the things that make a great orchestra so much more than the sum of competent parts.  I argued unsuccessfully, except for possibly arguing myself out of the job.

Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning.  Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience.  Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.   They don’t need the stress of “catching back up,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.  

A great school is also so much more than the sum of its parts.  A great school has teachers collaborating with each other and with their students to create amazing experiences that the kids will remember forever.  Great teachers don’t need tests to know how their students are doing.  They don’t need a packaged curriculum.  They know that “standardization” is an absurd notion when nothing about learning, especially students, is “standard.”

Many teachers have survived by being good subversives, occasionally aided and abetted by administrators who deemphasized testing nonsense if they could get away with it.  But now, exhausted by the demands of the pandemic and demoralized by blame, many of the best teachers have had enough.

This is an emerging national crisis.


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