From the Magazine

No, Covid Isn’t to Blame

Union leaders will offer tired talking points about salary structures and benefits. But, as this year winds down, get a group of teachers together for margaritas, chips, and salsa, and you’ll start to hear the truth. 

The teacher shortage isn’t about the pandemic or the pay (not fully, at least). Those are catalysts for something far more troubling in the landscape of American public education. This teacher shortage is about the devaluing of the American teacher and the institutional barriers that stand between them and their students. It’s about empowerment, or the lack thereof. 

Until we eliminate those barriers, reinstitute a modicum of trust in our teachers, and empower them to have their hands on the controls, this crisis will only get worse. 

The Reality of the Calamity

There’s no escaping the reality of the status quo. Hordes of teachers have left the profession, many current teachers are thinking about jumping ship, and college teaching programs are seeing decreasing enrollment numbers. The shortage is here and the pipeline is drying up. 

According to an National Education Association survey this past June, fully one-third of teachers have indicated a desire to leave their careers. Mental health challenges plague the profession, with anxiety and depression affecting as many as 40% of the teaching workforce. Predictably, retirements are up year-on-year by over 30%. 

But, what is causing the problem? It’s easy to see a spike in 2020 and assume the pandemic is the sole cause. The real story is more nuanced. 

Teacher Reductionism

A survey of teachers in 2018 showed us that, when offered 50 words to use to describe themselves, more teachers chose “innovative” than any other term. Two years later, they’d prove themselves right, as they were asked to support the weight of an entire education system as bureaucrats and policymakers hid in confusion. 

Now, think about the education system as you know it. It hasn’t changed nearly at all in a full century. In recent years, as most other institutions have been disrupted by customer-focused innovations, education has become more rigid. High-stakes tests have become a sole focus. Curriculum and standards are too rigid and immoveable to allow for students to succeed. Teachers are encouraged, if not forced, to do the same sort of performative, sit-and-get teaching style that’s failed for decades. 

What does this mean for the teaching shortage? Quite simply, teachers aren’t empowered, given ownership, or offered trust. They are hamstrung by a rigid system and it’s likely making them feel as helpless as their students. But, they aren’t. These people are innovators at their core, so let’s allow them to innovate. 

Reversing the Trend

There is hope to be had here. With just a few adjustments, the state of American education can be drastically improved. It’s a simple domino effect and it looks like this: 

We start by empowering teachers with freedom and flexibility, chopping down institutional barriers and red tape, and granting them power to operate in their students’ best interest. As teachers realize their freedom, they take ownership over their classrooms and careers again. As ownership grows, so do the outcomes and social trust. As teachers’ social trust grows, so does their professional clout. Reinvigorated teachers will hold off retiring. Passionate college students will consider education as a viable career. 

No, teachers aren’t just upset about their pay. No, the chasm in teaching positions isn’t a product of COVID-19. No, teachers aren’t helpless. 

The whole of our shortage can be fixed with one simple adjustment: empower our teachers. We’ve got a summer to work on it, but if the trendlines are right, not much longer. 

Kylie Stupka is president of Empowered, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering teachers to develop the growth mindset — the ability to discover, develop, and apply their own unique talents and abilities to self-actualize and contribute to a society of mutual benefit.