Every year, teachers and other school staff experience two first weeks of school: the week when we prepare for students’ return and the week they actually do. During the former, there is no easing back to work; immediately, our days are long and laborious as we push carts and carry boxes to our classrooms. But that’s okay — we’re thrilled to be in our element.
When the students — or as I call them, the lovelies — join us the week after, the school building feels as vibrant as it’s meant to. Pairs of new shoes saunter the halls, voices bouncing off lockers. Classrooms, finally, are full. We’re all where we belong, ready to start again.
This August marked my 12th year teaching high school English in Baltimore City. For most, if not all of those years, my schools have had vacancies: three guidance counselors doing the work of four, a long-term substitute filling for a math teacher. But this year, the vacancies have been harder — impossible — to overlook.
Teaching assignments were rearranged at the last minute. Our administration must find coverage, daily, for classes without instructors. Unfamiliar faces appear once or twice a week — folks who work at the district headquarters, but have been sent to offer support in schools.
This shuffling of limited resources isn’t specific to my school, or even Baltimore. Nationwide, school communities are suffering the repercussions of teacher shortages. This increased strain depletes already weary educators; our public education system cannot sustain this amount of stress. It scares me to imagine the catastrophes that might be ahead.
Fortunately, any teacher can tell you a solution to this potential crisis — and it’s a simple one.
Trust us to do our jobs.
A number of teachers — past, present, and even future — would agree that teaching is a calling; a lifestyle rather than a career. Because teaching brings us fulfillment, we commit to it more than we would other jobs. Not only do we give more enthusiasm and energy, we have a higher threshold for sacrifice. In return for our willingness to work unpaid hours, purchase our own materials, and endure extreme fatigue for ten months each year, we just ask that we’re left to do our jobs in peace.
When asked why I love teaching, I say it’s because I’m paid to laugh with my lovelies every day. But it’s also the privilege of witnessing when the lovelies are excited to learn, enthusiastic enough to briefly forget about their phones. I’m the only one with them every day: paying attention to what they care about and figuring out the best ways to reach them. When determining how to deliver meaningful English language arts instruction — for this specific set of students, at this particular moment in time — I’m the expert.
So it baffles me that people who have never set foot in my classroom feel capable of making decisions about, and even mandates around, how or what I teach. Educational leaders (officials at the district, state, and federal levels) don’t know anything about my teaching style or strengths as an educator. They haven’t a clue about the dynamics of my classes, let alone the unique needs of each lovely. Surely, my understanding of my lovelies, in addition to my various degrees, certifications, and professional development, qualify me to write my own lesson plans.
It’s not that I, or other teachers, refuse help. We’re quick to co-plan and share resources. When we’re short on time or ideas, we don’t hesitate to ask for guidance. Collaboration is one of the tools that keep a school system running.
But when teachers aren’t given a choice in what we teach, when we’re told we must use a curriculum that doesn’t actually benefit our students, it’s not support, and it’s surely not collaboration. It’s a message, over and over again: We don’t know what we’re doing, our decisions aren’t good enough, and we can’t be trusted to do what’s best for our students.
Maybe the powers that be don’t realize just how much their directives feel like denouncements — especially the longer we’re in the classroom. It’s possible they don’t understand that educators revel in designing our own instruction; our passion for the content we teach makes our lesson plans creative and our assignments memorable.
Early in my career, for instance, I still had the autonomy to write my own essay questions. For weeks, the lovelies brainstormed, drafted, and revised assignments that I was invested in, and that I could organically encourage them to care about, too. But once the district began writing our unit plans for us, essay questions have taken some form of “write an explanatory/argumentative about ____,” to be answered in a five-paragraph format.
Perhaps, by being so prescriptive, they think they’re supporting, not stifling, us.
But isn’t it educational leaders’ responsibility to question why so many teachers are leaving the profession? In an interview on WYPR, Baltimore Teachers Union officer Cristina Duncan Evans said, “A third of the teachers left at the end of the [2021-2022] school year ... [at] a single school.”
Certainly, the reasons for this are myriad: retirement, transfer, new caretaking obligations. However, the pandemic exacerbated long-standing problems in education, such as lack of teacher autonomy. People are also leaving because of — to put it mildly — job dissatisfaction.
In the same interview, Baltimore City Public Schools Chief of Staff Alison Perkins-Cohen discussed the teacher shortage without a single reference to teacher retention. Instead, she repeatedly noted the current recruitment challenges.
“The biggest barrier is absence of candidates.”
“We all have to try to figure out what are we doing to get more folks into teaching.”
“I think all of us need to be thinking nationally about how do we solve this problem, and how do we make teaching more attractive to young people.”
Pursuing recruitment without retention is not only shortsighted, it also borders on counterproductive. Ideally, new candidates will remain in the classroom for years, honing their craft and becoming experienced educators.
If teachers aren’t treated as the capable professionals we are, though, we’re less likely to remain in this field. You cannot recruit people to go where fewer and fewer want to stay.