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How to convince people to become teachers

People pursue teaching because they want to make a difference, how do you convince them it’s still possible after two pandemic-worn years?

How to convince people to become teachers
[Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images]


Growing up, Amina Stevens’ family members warned her not to pursue education, but it wasn’t until after she became a teacher that she began to suspect that they were onto something. She loved making content relevant and fun – “I can’t have a boring lesson,” she told me – but the emphasis on newly electronic standardized testing meant she had to focus a lot of her time and energy helping her students, many of whom didn’t have computers, learn to type. She supplied students with pencils and paper and even prom dresses out of her own closet. “I didn’t have time to myself, I was staying at school ’til like 11 o’clock at night… I didn’t realize how much of a toll it was taking on me,” Stevens says.

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She lasted two years, and now works in real estate where she feels her education skills are well put to use.

The importance of teachers to the functioning of American society has come into sharp relief over the past two years. But now more than ever, teachers are struggling to function. High teacher attrition has plagued schools across the country for years, and recent surveys suggest the share of teachers thinking of quitting their jobs has risen considerably during the pandemic. And while a major exodus has not yet come to pass, the ongoing strain may exacerbate another troubling trend: fewer people are entering the profession in the first place. The number of people who enrolled in teacher preparation programs across the country fell by more than a third between 2010 and 2018, according to the Center for American Progress. Enrollment dipped further in many teaching programs last year.

A decline in the number of people pursuing teaching today could worsen educator shortages tomorrow, spelling trouble for public education as a whole. “If you reduce the potential pool of individuals willing to go into teaching, then you reduce the quality as well, because you have to dip lower,” said David Peyton, assistant professor of special education at Appalachian State University. Colleges of education may be tempted to lower their standards in order to maintain enrollment. Elementary schools desperate to fill classrooms may have to rely on teachers without robust training – and students in under-resourced schools will feel the worst effects. “Underfunded schools and schools that have the highest needs are where we tend to be the most lenient in terms of who can be in the classroom to teach,” said Kathy Kramer, dean for the School of Education and Human Services at Carroll University.

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There is no single explanation for the emerging hesitation to enter the teaching profession. “The decline in the esteem of the profession, the salary, the conditions, makes it less attractive for people who are talented to go into it,” said Peyton. Even students interested in teaching are sometimes discouraged from doing so by family members or older teachers, according to some university administrators I talked to.

“Teachers make 20-30% less than other college educated professionals. But it’s not like we can just raise salaries without legislative pressure.”

Desiree Carver Thomas, Learning Policy Institute

Governments, universities, and K-12 schools across the country are searching for ways to reverse course, removing financial and practical barriers to the field, or reconceptualizing it entirely. “There’s a lot of bets being placed,” said Sara Shaw, a senior researcher at Wisconsin Policy Forum who focuses on education policy research. But there is no silver bullet, and securing the teacher pipeline will require a comprehensive approach. “How are you recruiting and preparing? And then how are you retaining? Any conversation that doesn’t start with that premise is probably not a productive conversation,” said Peyton.

Here are three problems the U.S. faces in recruiting the next class of teachers, along with some innovative solutions.

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Problem #1: High debt and low pay
Possible solution: Subsidize teacher prep

From a financial perspective, it’s not hard to see why young people might have qualms about teaching. Becoming a teacher requires a lot of education. And although teaching is more insulated from economic shocks than other professions, the average teaching salary doesn’t justify the high cost of an education degree. “At this point, teachers make 20-30% less than other college educated professionals, depending on the methodology that’s used to make that comparison, and at the same time, teachers are still accruing the same debt,” said Desiree Carver Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst at Learning Policy Institute. “The dollars and cents don’t really work out, such that teaching is becoming increasingly unaffordable as a profession.”
But raising compensation for teachers is harder than it sounds. Over 80% of school expenditures already go to salaries and benefits, so schools don’t have the wiggle room to raise salaries without increasing their budgets, which are typically controlled by local governments. “It’s not like we can just raise salaries without legislative pressure,” said Peyton. But there are other ways to ease the cost of becoming a teacher. “The state can do things like underwrite the cost of preparation, so that teachers have greater compensation because they’re not paying for all that student debt,” said Thomas. Some universities are already doing so. The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education’s donor-funded Wisconsin Teacher Pledge program covers up to the cost of in-state tuition, fees, and testing certification for students enrolled in the school’s teacher education programs. In return, the students “pledge” to teach for four years (three, if they teach in a high-needs district or subject area) at a grade school in Wisconsin. There’s also a role for the federal government, which could offer tax benefits to teachers, thereby increasing take-home pay without raising salaries, said Thomas.

Problem #2: Teacher prep is long and complex
Possible Solution: “grow your own” programs

There are practical barriers to the profession as well. “Just from a pretty logistical perspective, there’s a lot of coursework that goes into it,” said Mark McDermott, associate dean for teacher education and student services in the University of Iowa College of Education. It’s difficult to complete all the necessary coursework in four years, especially if a student doesn’t go to college planning to become a teacher. Many schools of education have partnered with high schools in order to connect with prospective teachers earlier, often referred to as “grow your own” programs. Some colleges allow high school students to take an education class, for example, or help them complete their college applications. The University of Milwaukee has partnered with Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee Area Technical college to create such a program. “They’re doing everything from direct recruitment of teachers to things like making sure that MPS students fill out their FAFSA, because if they don’t fill out their FAFSA, they’re probably not going to college in the first place. And that immediately creates a barrier,” said Shaw.

These and other wrap-around supports may be particularly effective at recruiting teachers of color, who’ve long struggled to make in-roads into teaching and could strengthen the field. During the 2010s, as the overall number of graduates from education programs in southeastern Wisconsin fell, the region saw a marked uptick in both the number and percentage of graduates of color, according to a recent analysis by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “There are some interventions that are helpful across the board. And there are others where maybe targeted toward students or teachers of color, but if the overall effect is one of a more stable, increasing workforce that helps everyone,” said Shaw, who led the research on the report. Some school administrators believe current testing requirements are also keeping a lot of potential educators, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, out. In the summer of 2020, Iowa removed from state law a requirement that students pass a nationally standardized exam in order to gain entrance to a teacher education program, which has helped to buoy enrollment in the University of Iowa’s education program, said McDermott.

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Problem #3: The way classrooms are structured is stressful for teachers and kids
Possible solution: Offer more flexible ways to teach

Another way to attract more people to education is to re-envision it. “Why do you always have to have one teacher with 25 students? If you have 100 students in fourth grade, rather than having four separate classroom teachers, what if you had four teachers and two paraeducators and an instructional coach – a team that was working with these 100 students in different ways?” asked Mark McDermott, by way of example. Likewise, while remote learning doesn’t work for everyone, some teachers and students prefer it. “How are we opening our field to the people that might want to be a teacher in a less traditional format or modality?” McDermott said.

The static nature of teaching contrasts sharply with other occupations, where people regularly move upward into more senior positions.”

In a similar vein, a recent survey of teachers in Washington, D.C. suggests that more flexible scheduling appeals to many teachers. The profession could also benefit from a more robust career ladder. “To teach in the same classroom for 30 years is a very challenging thing to do,” said Peyton. The static nature of teaching contrasts sharply with other occupations, where people regularly move upward into more senior positions. Creating more opportunities for experienced teachers to take on leadership positions in their schools – as a master teacher of mathematics, for example – can make the profession more appealing.

Beyond recruiting

Whatever approaches America takes, one thing is certain: we will not avoid future teacher shortages by focusing on enrollment alone. Recruitment efforts can’t come at the expense of proper training, which isn’t good for kids and could backfire if underprepared teachers burn out and leave the workforce entirely. “Those sort of quick fix solutions can exacerbate teacher shortages rather than solve them,” said Thomas.

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Plus, even well-trained teachers are leaving the field due to poor working conditions, which have deteriorated further over the past two years. Pandemic-worsened staff shortages have led to expanded responsibilities and class sizes. Meanwhile, teachers are dealing with blowback from parents frustrated about school disruptions, as well as escalating violence and other fallouts from students’ battered mental health – all while trying to protect their own health.

“Most of the people who leave are not retirees, they’re mid-career people who are going into other lines of work,” Thomas says. “So it’s getting people in the door, through comprehensive preparation, but also supporting them in those early years and throughout their careers.”

There are some obvious ways to improve working conditions for teachers, such as ensuring that they have well-trained, supportive administrators, said Thomas. But conditions vary widely by location and specialty. For example, some special education teachers – who have particularly high attrition rates – co-teach with other teachers, while others work with kids across multiple grade levels in a self-contained environment. “You have all these different permutations of the job, and the conditions they work under. And depending on which setting you get, those conditions can either enhance that or detract from that job and it can be really depressing for a special educator, and then they get burnt out,” Peyton said.

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Supporting existing teachers may be the best recipe for attracting new ones.”

Improving the circumstances will require using local data to identify where the attrition and shortages are worst, and then closely scrutinizing the working conditions in those areas, Peyton said. “Smart data that drives decision making is important,” Peyton said. And input from teachers is vital, Bayliss Fiddiman, an associate director for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress (CAP). That’s why CAP has recommended that the Biden administration create an interagency working group that directly consults teachers in order to better understand and improve their experiences.

Supporting existing teachers may be the best recipe for attracting new ones. According to Shaw’s research, many students on the fence about becoming a teacher worry that “a combination of politics or mandates or the just general stress of the job are all going to be things that prevent them from being the kind of teachers they would want to be,” Shaw told me. People pursue teaching because they want to make a difference, and many young people suspect that current teaching conditions will make that impossible. Convincing them otherwise may require getting to the root of what’s making life so difficult for so many teachers now. Focus groups suggest that students are acutely aware of their teachers’ experiences, said Fiddiman. Students can tell when their teachers are unsupported, disrespected, and stressed – a reality that is at once sobering and hopeful. “Every day, there’s an opportunity to attract new educators, through students watching their teachers,” Fiddiman said.

 Stephanie H. Murray is a public policy researcher turned freelance journalist.

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