Monday, October 22, 2018

What Are We Going To Do About It?

When our daughter Josephine was young, not even two-years-old, she would complain to this homebody-inclined father, "Let's go do something!" So we would go to parks and playgrounds, the Seattle Children's Museum, the Pacific Science Center, and wherever else we might find other children. Her desire to get out there and mix it up with other kids was so pronounced that I started thinking about preschool. When I floated the idea to the three most important women in my life -- my wife, my mother, and my mother-in-law -- they were each emphatic in their opposition, arguing that she was lucky enough to have a stay-at-home parent, which was better than school. So, we continued to cobble together a social life until one day I met a woman who told me about cooperative preschool. As she explained it to me, "The parents go to school with their kids," an idea that passed muster with my panel of matriarchs. And that, in a nutshell, is how I found my way into cooperative preschools.

And that is also how I wound up, in my mid-30's, without any prior inkling on my part, becoming a teacher. I found that after three years as a cooperative parent, working as an assistant teacher, I genuinely loved working with young children, helping them, supporting them, playing with them, so when Josephine moved on to kindergarten, I stayed behind. I've heard other teachers tell their stories, all different in their particulars, but all pretty much the same when it comes to the why: they love their jobs and the children they teach.

None of us are in this for the money. None of us are in this for the hours. And none of us are in this for the prestige. We do it from our passions, from our love, and because we know what we do is important, but for an increasing number of us, that isn't enough.

We are a profession in crisis, with teacher shortages cropping up right across the country. Eight percent of us will leave the profession this year. Twenty to 30 percent will leave within the next five years. Two thirds of us won't make it to retirement. Pay has fallen and respect for the profession is at an all time low. Nearly twenty percent of us must take part time jobs to make ends meet. For the first time since the question was first asked some fifty years ago, a majority of Americans now say that they would not want their own child to become a teacher. Morale amongst our nation's teachers is low and strikes, some of the wildcat variety, are on the rise. If we were talking about any other profession, we would be moving heaven and earth to fix it.

I've pulled these findings from an important USA Today piece called "Teachers in America." A team of journalists spread out across the country to follow 15 teachers for a day. What they found is not surprising: dedicated professionals who love what they do, but who are increasingly feeling the pressures and frustrations of a society that increasingly undervalues our work.

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected . . . That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

I recently wrote a post in which I identified "joy" as a teacher's real compensation, to which some responded, "But you can't pay the rent with joy," a truth that can't be avoided. And while joy will always stand at the center of why we do it, we've reached a point at which is seems that it's the only thing keeping the profession from falling apart altogether. We love working with the children, doing meaningful, important work, but the ground around us has been eroding for the past several decades. It has always been demanding and stressful, but political attacks, meddling, and disrespect, accompanied by depressed wages, are driving even veteran teachers away in droves, while bright young people are looking elsewhere.

We are in crisis. Even joy isn't enough. This won't be an easy thing to correct, but higher pay would be a good place to start.

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