Let’s Rethink the Message We Send to Potential Educators

Posted By: Joshua Starr AASPA Blog,

I had no plans to become a teacher. Sure, I liked kids, I had been a camp counselor, and I always knew I would do something to serve the public good. But even though I would often look at my own teachers and think, “I could do that better,” actually becoming one wasn’t on my radar. But I was inspired by the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, literally “to repair the world,” often understood as an imperative to pursue social justice. After leaving college, I realized that education is at the foundation of all other professions and the cornerstone of democracy, so what better path could there be than education? And heck, kids are fun!

When I began my journey, Teach For America had just launched, promising to save impoverished and vulnerable kids through two years of exposure to elite, Ivy League students whose passion would lift them up through mere osmosis. While it caught my eye as a potential path simply because I wouldn’t have to get a degree in teaching, I had graduated from a state school with a double major in English and history and didn’t think I was the kind of person TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, was looking for.

I also knew in my gut that while I wanted to start as a teacher and experience the classroom, it would be the first step on my education journey, not the last. And it has pretty much turned out that way. I began as a classroom teacher with aspirations to become a high school principal and then maybe a superintendent, and I ended up in a central office working for an amazing mentor who gave me opportunities to learn and grow. That led to two superintendencies and now the leadership of a national organization that I’ve long admired and where I’m able to influence public education in new ways.

I share my story because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teacher shortage and how our framing of both the problem and the solution may be contributing to the very challenge we’re trying to solve.

Who wants to teach?

I suspect that many young people hesitate to choose a career in education because they’ve seen too many unappealing examples of the work: the support staff toiling in the background, the veteran who’s been teaching the same lessons in the same room for 20 years, or the harried administrator who rushes through the halls, walkie-talkie squawking as they tell kids to take off their hats and get to class. Yes, there are countless inspiring educators in our schools — like my daughter’s recent teacher Mr. James or my own 11th-grade English teacher, Ms. Rogow — but by the time they graduate, every student will also have met some educators who fail to inspire.

At least in part, that may explain why enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the U.S. has declined by 35% over the last few years. School districts used to be able to find elementary teachers easily but struggled to find qualified science, special education, and English-as-a-second language teachers. Nowadays, human resources departments report having few applicants for all positions. Moreover, teachers of color continue to be hard to find, even by recruiters in diverse districts who understand how important it is to hire educators who look like the kids they serve.

Even if students express an interest in teaching, it can still be difficult to get them to take the initial steps toward entering the profession, as I’ve learned from my work with PDK’s Educators Rising program. For one thing, they need to be in touch with inspiring teacher leaders who can relate to them and get them excited about serving their communities. And once they are inspired, they need opportunities to experience what it’s actually like to teach and work with students, so they can see if the job is a good fit for them. Then, if they want to participate in a program like Educators Rising, they may also need to be eligible for dual credit, tuition reimbursement, and financial support to attend regional and national competitions. Finally, if they’re under 18, then their parents must give their blessings, which many are reluctant to do given the financial limitations of a career in teaching. Indeed, our 2018 PDK poll found — for the first time since we launched the poll in 1969 — that a majority of parents (54%) did not want their kids to become teachers, largely because of low salaries.

From talking with participants in Educators Rising, we’ve found that these aspiring educators fall into two broad categories. One group — who I’ll call the traditionalists — is made up of those who have always wanted to go into teaching because they’ve seen the difference teachers can make for individual students, and they want to do the same. Maybe they had teachers who helped bring them out of their shell, for example, or who went above and beyond to help their classmates in times of crisis.

Students in the other group — the activists — are inspired to teach because they want to heal the world, and they have come to realize that education is a powerful means of doing so. Often, they aspire not just to help individual students but to seek out platforms and roles that allow them to have a positive influence on the whole school, district, city, or state, whether that means overhauling the K-12 curriculum, coaching other teachers, leading the central office, or shaping education policy.

Both kinds of educators are important. We need those who are driven to help individual students succeed and thrive, and we also need those who are driven to improve the entire school, district, or community. The problem, though, is that most efforts to recruit and attract new teachers focus entirely on the first group, ignoring the latter.

More than one kind of career

Historically, we’ve brought most new teachers into the profession by inviting them to attend a preservice, university-based program that fulfills state requirements for certification. In recent years, we’ve also seen a small but fast-growing number of teachers enter the profession via a range of “alternative” pathways, typically bypassing the university in favor of programs that put them in the classroom much more quickly, or that make it easy for career changers to go into teaching after working in another field. Either way, though, the message to aspiring teachers is the same: Teaching is a calling, a form of service, and a deeply satisfying job, allowing you to work directly with young people, build positive relationships with them, and make a real difference in their lives. That is, the default assumption has been that all new teachers are traditionalists who aim to spend a long and happy career in the classroom.

What none of these efforts do (with the possible exception of Teach For America) is frame classroom teaching as one part of a career in education. Presumably, once students leave these programs and start teaching, they’re set for a happy lifetime of rewarding work. But where does that leave those activist-educators who never intended to spend their entire career in the classroom, and who aspire to have a larger influence on their schools and communities? Shouldn’t they have the option to pursue professional pathways that start in the classroom and then branch out in other directions?

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that teachers should be encouraged to leave the classroom after a few years. Experienced classroom teachers are to be treasured, rewarded, looked to as mentors, and given every opportunity to continue working directly with students for as long as they choose. However, we need to acknowledge that some educators want a different kind of career, and if we neglect to make other pathways available to them — or worse, if we insist that they are wrong to want to leave the classroom — then we shouldn’t be surprised to see them leave education altogether.

The question is, what can we do to embrace the aspiring activists? What would it mean to rethink teacher recruitment, preparation, and early career support in ways that provide real options for those educators who want to start in the classroom but then pursue other plans (such as coaching and supporting other teachers, becoming school or district leaders, leading programs or initiatives, doing policy work with the union or local or state government, running for public office, working for a community-based organization, becoming a researcher, and on and on)?

Those are just some of the paths that I can imagine, and all have the potential of furthering the cause of public education. If it were seen as perfectly legitimate to start out in teaching and then move into one of these roles, then more activists might be drawn into our field. We might even find that more of the traditionalists would stick around, too — given the chance to try out a new role, many teachers would no doubt rediscover that the classroom is where they truly belong.

I can imagine a system whereby school districts create partnerships with external organizations (private, nonprofit, and governmental) and encourage educators to move back and forth between sectors, to the benefit of both. Lots of teachers are interested in policy work and politics, too, so why not designate a number of paid internships (equivalent to their salaries) with local or state government, giving them a chance to learn how the sausage is made, while bringing their educator perspective to bear on policy issues?

Getting such initiatives off the ground is no small feat — it would take significant time, money, and lots of creativity and good will. But we need to reimagine the pathways that we offer to teachers, providing real options for those who want to start out in the classroom and then move into new roles. Otherwise, our teaching population will continue to dwindle, with fewer and fewer people ready to step up and join the profession.