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Teacher Shortage Crisis: How to Pave the Way for More (and More Satisfied) Teachers

It’s no secret teachers are jumping ship in record numbers, and the dwindling numbers of incoming grads don’t even come close to patching the gap as the demand for teachers rises.

A few weeks ago, the Learning Policy Institute reported enrollment in teaching programs is down 35 percent nationwide (and has been for years), and the annual shortfall could grow to 112,000 teachers by 2018 if current trends persist.

Reasons for this and opinions abound, of course. In my 20 years as an educator, now working with thousands of teachers as the founder of Standard For Success, I’ve observed a few patterns that could help us better understand the quandary our profession is in, and potential solutions.

A perfect storm, and a sinking ship

It’s worth remembering that, when choosing a career, most educators were influenced by a family member who was an educator, who enjoyed a rewarding career and the respect of their community. Others were inspired by a teacher who made a positive impact on them. Sadly, our industry came to a turning point five or six years ago—a perfect storm of conditions that made a teacher’s job less gratifying and increasingly frustrating.

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, which used data from the Department of Education, points to teacher attrition (that’s fancy speak for teachers leaving their jobs) as the greatest culprit, driving as much as 95 percent of the shortage. No surprise there.

Much of that attrition is an outcome of shrinking budgets. Many states passed legislation that reduced their ability to collect taxes to support General Fund Expenditures, which feed teachers’ salaries. With caps on property taxes and other funding barriers in place, schools had to make sharp cuts to operate within their shrunken funding.

Unfortunately, that meant cutting teachers, programs, and class offerings. Teachers who remained were then tasked with managing larger class sizes and teaching subject areas that were out of their comfort zones.

How to engage teachers effectively in 2017

At the same time, numerous legislative agendas—like increased school choice and more stringent teacher performance standards—passed at the national and local levels, creating additional changes in public education. The resulting mandates brought on a new level of assessments and accountability to weigh on teachers’ shoulders, now hunched under increased mandates, increased scrutiny, and less flexibility in what and how they teach. Students reaped some of the fallout, becoming collateral damage as they were exposed to teachers’ frustration in the classroom and at home.

Can anyone really be surprised many have drawn a line in the sand and chosen to leave (or not enter) the profession?

Other contributing factors include a plethora of new career choices now available to young people—careers we couldn’t even imagine when we graduated from high school. That’s a good thing, but it means that as educators, we need to change the conversation.

Encouraging an interest in education

For one, teachers, administrators, sponsors, and coaches all must get back to promoting the why behind their decision to become educators: making a difference. Many students participate in cadet teaching programs that allow them to work with teachers on a daily basis. These experiences and a positive view of education will do wonders to drive up the number of students pursuing education preparation programs.

We also must encourage peer learning and collaboration where students get to help others learn. When they experience, first-hand, the satisfaction of helping someone learn, an interest in education may follow. One way teachers can encourage this is to pay attention when students demonstrate a love for a particular subject, and encourage them to expand and share their knowledge with their peers.

Equipping new teachers for success & satisfaction

Once students get on the path to becoming educators, we must be more effective in preparing them for success: Coaching them. Equipping them with the right tools, training and resources. Providing helpful feedback to help them navigate their first years in the classroom.

Too often, a new teacher is thrown into the waves and it’s sink-or-swim. We need to do better providing feedback for professional growth.

Beyond equipping them adequately, we also need to ensure teachers’ job experiences are rewarding. Dan Pink, a behavioral expert, shared in a TED Talk that studies replicated around the world for more than 40 years show that contingent motivators (“if you do this, you get that”) don’t work. What works? Intrinsic drivers: the desire to do things because they matter, because we like them, because they’re interesting and part of something bigger.

That requires an operating system that revolves around three elements:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our lives
  • Mastery: the desire to get better at something that matters
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.

It’s why I founded Standard for Success, alongside other educators, to equip teachers with the kind of feedback and ongoing dialogue that matters—not excessive assessment exercises that keep schools compliant with regulations but lack meaningful feedback for professional growth.

The road to stop the bleeding in education is a bumpy one, but we do have the tools to get there. It begins with changing our conversations with our teachers, and those who may one day join our ranks.


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