Teachers

In yesterday’s local paper, there was a front page article headlining the coming teacher shortage in Utah, to which I wanted to reply, “How could there not be?”

The beginning salary for a Utah teacher in most systems is not far above the poverty level for a family of four, and the average Utah teacher’s salary is the lowest in the United States. Utah spends the least money per pupil in primary and secondary schools of any state in the United States. Nationwide, anywhere from twenty to fifty percent of newly certified teachers drop out of teaching in five years or less [depending on whose figures you trust], and that rate is even higher in Utah. In 2015, half of all newly hired teachers in Utah quit after just one year. Yet studies also show that the longer teachers teach, the more effective they become. Add to that the fact that Utah has on average the largest class sizes in the United States. The academic curriculum leading to a teaching degree has also become more demanding [at least at the local university], and it often takes even the best students more than the standard four years to complete a course of study that leads to teacher certification, especially if they have to work to help pay for their studies.

Despite the often dismal salaries, study after study shows the comparatively poor level of pay is down the list for why teachers walk away from teaching. Almost all prospective teachers know that teaching isn’t a high-paid profession. What they don’t know is just how effectively hostile the teaching environment is to a healthy and balanced life.

Here in Utah, for example, there are state legislators who complain about pampered and lazy teachers. They’re obviously unaware of the unpaid after-school, weekend, and evening workload required to support an eight-hour teaching day. Or of the number of parents who complain about their darling children’s grades – such as the one who wanted to know how his son could possibly flunk an art class [which turned out to be the fact that said son failed to attend most of the classes and never did a single art activity]. Or about the increasing reliance on testing to determine teaching effectiveness [when the testing itself reduces instructional time, when the test results determine teacher retention and ratings, and when the tests tend to measure factoids, and fill-in-the-blank skills, rather than thinking or being able to write even a coherent paragraph].

It also doesn’t help when the local papers are filled with pages and pages about the sports activities of the local high schools, with seldom a word about academic achievements or other more academic successes, such as plays, concerts, success in engineering competitions and the like.

Nor is it exactly encouraging when school administrators offer little understanding or support of their teaching faculty. That’s more commonplace than one might realize, although national surveys show it’s a significant factor in contributing to teacher drop-out/burnout. Certainly, a number of former students of my wife the university professor have mentioned this as a difficulty in their middle school or high school teaching positions.

And finally, in the end, what’s also overlooked is that it’s actually more expensive to continually replace a high number of departing teachers than to take the necessary steps to cut the teacher drop-out rate. But based on the current public view of education and the unwillingness to make meaningful changes, I don’t see this problem changing any time soon. In fact, it’s only going to get worse… far worse.

9 thoughts on “Teachers”

  1. Frank says:

    This description of the situation regarding K – 12 teachers rings true and is one of the most disturbing trends that I have seen. It may be that teachers in Utah are paid very poorly, and that they are portrayed by the local politicians as coddled, but I think they are probably not as physically “at risk” as many of the teachers in other sections of the Country.

    My K – 12 experience was 1955 through 1968, quite a long time ago. I remember some good teachers, some great teachers…and some bad and very bad teachers. What I don’t remember was them at the poverty level, or being physically afraid or threatened. We were just as “bad” as any group of young people: we skipped school, drank when we could, smoked in the boys room (tobacco and pot), and general disobeyed the rules whenever we thought we could get by with it. But, I don’t remember even the passing thought of being physically confrontational to a teacher…or allowing anyone else to be. I participated in varsity sports, so I was probably in the group most equipped to be physically threatening, but this wasn’t even on our radar.

    I don’t know if I’m remembering with “rose colored glasses” or just getting old, but I really worry about what will be coming out from the mess that has been made of secondary education.

    1. As in all states, it depends on where. The Salt Lake City area does have a gang problem. The Deseret News recently reported that there were over 100 gangs in the Salt Lake Valley, and a significant number are involved in the drug trade.

  2. D Archerd says:

    One key factor cited in analyzing why Finland has such a highly regarded education system (and yes, as measured by standardized test scores, too) is the respect the profession of teacher holds in the country. Teachers are well paid, but not excessively so compared to other countries, but they are well regarded as important members of society, and competition for teaching positions is fierce and restricted to only the top of university class standings.

    But one of the biggest problems in the U.S. is that the education system in general and teachers in particular are being burdened with more and more responsibilities beyond simply educating their students. They are expected to provide the discipline students lack at home, the development of their “character” that in earlier days were considered the role of parents and churches, and the administrative tasks keep multiplying with every well-intentioned government program that nevertheless comes with its own set of reporting requirements and other administrivia. And yes, they increasingly need physical protection against those who are criminals first and only incidentally students.

    My father served as a high school science teacher for over 35 years and was appalled at the end of his career by the shift from teaching being a profession to being a trade, complete with unions. The irony is that he was forced into retirement by a local school board attempting to trim budget costs by ridding themselves of the most experienced, senior (i.e. most highly-paid) teachers, an action that he could have successfully fought had he been represented by a teacher’s union.

    We have collectively created the present situation by a series of incremental steps, all of them well-intentioned, but which, taken together, have resulted in the present nightmare. To quote Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  3. Bruce Trick says:

    As a teacher of almost 20 years experience now…and currently trying to be a mentor to yet another university student in education…I think the lack of respect teachers get by parents is the most frustrating thing there is. The increased burden of responsibilities pointed out by the previous person is so right. If I could spend more of my time on my lessons for my subject students might get more from me, but no…I have to spend my time with administrivia, or dealing with parents who just have abdicated their jobs as parents and expect teachers to do their job for them.

    In another few years when I retire I really wonder if the next generation of teachers will know how to deal with just teaching a subject, or will they just be experts in all the things they have to do – except teach their subjects.

  4. John Prigent says:

    My mother spent many years as a teacher, and later as headmistress. Yes, she was tired at the end of a school day including lesson preparation, marking answers, etc. But I could see that her ‘working time’ including travel to and from school, when averaged out over a year, was only the same as a typical commuter with a multi-hour return commute like myself – and she managed to take the same amount of holiday time away from home as that typical commuter. Here in England we hear of ‘over-tired, stressed’ teachers too, complaining about having to spend the school holidays doing exactly the same things as my mother but managing somehow to take more holiday time away from home than my mother. I don’t know how actual annual hours for commuters and teachers compare in the US school system, but I don’t believe the English teachers’ stories of overwork.

    1. I can’t speak to the English school system, but I can assure you that the workload of U.S. teachers has skyrocketed in just the past ten to fifteen years, largely the result of more and more assessment, accountability, and other excessive administrivia.

  5. Tim says:

    I am in England and from my experience agree with John Prigent. Though I am not a teacher, I know many. In their defence, teachers have not been used to working the same hours as those in corporate jobs and the advent of performance management, Government inspections and regularly-changing curricula has balanced this. Teaching should be a vocation but today it is more like business.

    In England it is also not that usual for teachers to commute far, unless you work in London or the home counties where property prices are much higher than the national average. None of the teachers I know have ever commuted more than 30 minutes and often far far less.

    I would never want to be a teacher I would add as I would expect the children to want to learn and not expect to be entertained.

  6. Jim S says:

    Teacher workload is a very complicated issue, and comparison to other jobs is even harder today as more and more jobs intrude further and further into “off” time via cellphones, email, and so on. Most teachers in the US still work a 10 month “year.” Most aren’t paid during the summers unless they are offered and accept an option to defer part of their salary through the school year for those summer months. While they may be given planning periods, those often get consumed by administrative tasks, meaning that the teachers end up taking papers, tests, etc. home to read and grade. And they have other duties along the way, too — like monitoring parking lots during arrival and dismissal. (Notice I haven’t even touched issues mentioned elsewhere like dealing with parents, the stress of dealing with unruly students without the ability to use force against them…) There’s a lot of perception that a teacher’s job is cushy, easy with long summers off… The reality is that it’s anything but that…

  7. invah says:

    Another point I would add is that teaching is an unacknowledged part of our social services system, along with police officers and librarians, and teachers are expected to fill in ever-widening gaps while being the linchpin for child welfare strategies.

    All of this is exactly why I haven’t gone into teaching, even though I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was a child.

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