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Teachers in Crisis: A Crisis in Teaching?

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Whenever I meet folks for the first time and they ask me what I do for a living, I always respond "I'm a school teacher". Then I either get one of two responses. Response a) sounds something like "Nice! Summers off. Steady pay. Good pension." while response b) is often more along the lines of "Wow! I do not know how you put up with those little (insert expletive of your choice here) all day. I couldn't do it."

Regardless of which comment I am facing, my response is usually pretty much the same for either. For a), I nod and smile and reply with "Yup! Best job in the world". For b), I nod and smile and reply with"Bah! Best job in the world."

Now, the mimicry here is not only because I truly believe teaching is the best job in the world, but rather because it is the best way to attend to the penchant people have for oversimplifying what I do. Yes, I do have summers off, steady pay and a fair pension, but even taken together, those three things are not what keeps me in teaching. They may, at one point, have drawn me into the profession, but they are miles away from representing the best of what I get out of it.  Similarly, the kids can sometimes be a challenge, pushing buttons that I didn't even know I had, but unless you have gotten into the wrong career, the kids should never drive you out. They can anger you, yes, frustrate you, certainly, and sometimes make choices or suffer fates that can devastate you in a way few outside the profession can comprehend.  The kids, however, are not what makes teaching so difficult. What often makes teaching so difficult, in the name of oversimplification, is all the other "stuff" that is associated with the job.

And, according to a variety of sources, this "stuff" is starting to take its toll.

In November of 2014, a British educational organization called The Association of School and College Leaders  (ASCL) released results of a survey which indicated that country is having a hard time finding teachers to fill positions. According to one BBC report, despite offering top B.Ed graduates bursaries of £25,000 (about $45,000 Canadian), teacher trainee programs have fallen some 6,000 teachers short of targets over the past three years. In some subjects, such as physics, recruitment targets were 67% below expectations.

Another report, carried by TES magazine, looked further into the survey results and found that a full two-thirds of head masters had been unable to recruit enough math teachers, and half reported not being able to fill science and even English positions, an area in which a lack of graduates has not traditionally been an issue. One expert predicted that, if this trend continues, many students will start courses in September of 2015 with an untrained teacher at the front of the room, or perhaps no teacher at all.

When asked to explain this sudden lack of interest in teaching, headmasters were quick to point out that increased workload, high pressure accountability, and "teacher bashing", (read "stuff") were exacerbating the problem. Add to that an increase in population in students and an improving economy where more careers are vying for university graduates, and you have a recipe for what some consider a potential educational "catastrophe". The issue caused British Prime Minister David Cameron to launch a £67 million campaign partially dedicated to encouraging university graduates to enter into the teaching profession.

Alarm bells have not just been isolated to the UK. In July of 2014, a group called the Alliance for Excellent Education released a report on teacher attrition in the US which determined that  in that country, "Roughly half a million U.S. teachers either move or leave the profession each year", citing lack of support and poor working conditions as contibuting factors. In December of 2014, an article appeared on Forbes.com, fittingly entitled "It's The Constant Criticism That's Putting Teachers off Teaching", which referred to the ASCL survey, and offered similar reasons for the high attrition rates. This trend is starting to have a huge impact on the already beleaguered American education system. In Arizona, for instance, there were over 500 vacant teaching positions still unfilled in September of 2014.

It is not only drawing teachers into the profession that is proving challenging, but keeping them as well. In 2013, a magazine called The Epoch Times carried a story in which McGill associate professor Jon G. Bradley came out in public with some fairly staggering statistics around Canadian teacher attrition rates. Speaking to The Montreal Gazette on the issue, Bradley estimated that nearly half of all new teachers are leaving the profession in this country within the first five years. According the Bradley, similar results are coming out of the US and Australia. University of Ottawa professor Joel Westheimer, also speaking to the Gazette, summed up the issue rather nicely when he said "Any other profession that had that kind of turn over would look at working conditions...and other things surrounding the teaching environment." Westheimer also asked what a corporation like Microsoft would do if they were facing a recruitment shortage and high turnover rates in programmers, and speculated that they would look to improve working conditions, not test the programmers.

Westheimer is not far off the mark in his analysis. Large companies like Microsoft and Facebook are indeed facing an impending shortage of programmers and have responded very aggressively by developing something called The Hour of Code. An international initiative by major players in the communications world, The Hour of Code tries to interest students in programming as a viable career option by engaging them in fun, free coding exercises. The initiative also comes complete with promotional videos that show how good the working conditions are for programmers in some companies. Shots of open-space offices where folks zip around on skateboards and Segways abound, as do testimonials from fulfilled-by-their-career programmers.

Ironically, the Hour of Code is aimed at schools and designed to be delivered by teachers.

Teaching has never been an easy profession. Over the past ten years or so of my career, it has certainly gotten progressively harder for me. Like so many in my profession, I blame myself for that. I never feel like I am doing enough for the kids in my classroom.  And, as I have commented many times, there seems to be no shortage of folks happy to tell me that I am right in that view. But even as some jurisdictions across the country and, indeed, around the world struggle with the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers, others seem content to ignore it. Content to continue to criticize and berate the system based on test scores, to dismiss concerns around working conditions as idle, unionist whining, and to remain somehow convinced that attacking teachers will improve education for students.

However, a word of caution.

Teaching is one of the few professions to which almost everyone has extensive exposure throughout their lives. As such, it is one of the few professions that kids get to see in action everyday. I think that it is this exposure and the impressions that are formed in the classroom that get young people thinking about teaching as a viable career option.

One wonders, however, what sort of impression about the joys of teaching the overburdened and undervalued educators of today are making on the graduates of tomorrow.

I love what I do. I love it despite the fact that it is something at which I will never be good enough. I also have little doubt that I, at least, will remain in the profession for the remainder of my career. However, if we continue to demand more and more from our teachers in the name of accountability and offer them less and less in the name of restraint, we run the risk of making the profession less and less attractive to the next generation.

A generation who may decide that summers off, a steady pay and a fair pension are not nearly enough to warrant putting up with all the other "stuff".