February 11, 2015

The rhetoric must change

Teacher recruitment a casualty

Our country has changed. Given the proliferation of “rant radio,” angry television commentaries, strident columnists and bloggers, along with comment sections that spew hate, it’s clear that the civility, manners, and humanity once the hallmarks of American society are now in short supply.

We pay a steep price for this lack of civility. I am particularly concerned about the impact on the teaching profession and our children.

We are facing a teacher shortage virtually unprecedented. About one third of the current teaching force is nearing retirement. With our student population continuing to grow, the Center for the Future of Teaching calculated that our state will need some 100,000 new teachers in the next 10 years.

Teacher recruitment was always a challenge — the profession pays significantly less than positions that require comparable schooling, training, and skills. College students report that low teacher compensation dampens the profession’s appeal for a large majority who otherwise might be excellent with students. Research shows we are also losing many skilled teachers already in our classrooms. One out of five new teachers leaves the classroom within the first three years. In urban school districts the numbers are even more startling — nearly half our new teachers leave within the first five years.

Other factors also contribute to the problem. The toxic language teachers read and hear every day about their profession, about their unions, about their work ethic and their pensions, is taking a toll on retention and on recruitment.

Teaching is a complex profession requiring a broad array of skills. If the task were just to stand in the front of a room and impart knowledge, anyone could do it. But most of us agree that the goal is to have children learn, and not all children learn the same way. Public schools take all comers. We take the disabled, the gifted, the happy and the malcontent. We take the shy and aggressive, the poor and the rich, those who speak a different language and those who do not speak at all. Teachers help every one of these students learn, while maintaining the classroom environment and managing an ever-growing list of state forms and requirements. We need skilled, trained professionals for these tasks. To meet that need, we must entice smart, compassionate, skilled young people to enter the profession and to stay with it.

In Santa Barbara County, we have many programs attempting to do just that. Westmont College is one of several institutions tackling this issue head-on. The college hosted “Let’s Talk Teaching!” conferences twice in the past three years, partnering with Partners in Education and high school guidance counselors to find interested high school students to take part and receive motivation to pursue a career in teaching. UCSB’s Gevirtz School of Education trains and encourages the next generation of teachers every day.

My office runs the Teacher Induction Program, which provides high quality training to our new teachers and high quality mentor training for experienced teachers to support those new teachers. We also sponsor the annual County Teacher of the Year program, the Distinguished Educator program, the Salute to Teachers events, and a number of events geared to identifying and rewarding the skilled teachers among us, and inspiring the next generation of teachers to understand how much we value their work. Westmont College has been leading the charge in calling attention to the looming teacher shortage crisis and promoting innovative local approaches as well.

Between 2010 and 2019 the number of students enrolled in public schools K-12 is expected to grow from 55 to 58 million. Urban districts will experience the greatest growth and the greatest challenge in attracting competent teachers. Given that the obstacles to teacher recruitment are growing, I believe the need for programs like the ones cited above cannot be overstated.

Certainly the recent recession contributed to the current teacher shortage. While those economic conditions may be paramount, it is also impossible to ignore the constant barrage of “blame and shame” teacher stories continuing to proliferate, which no doubt serve as a deterrent to young people considering the profession. Unlike other countries that revere and glamorize teachers, we give voice to those who do exactly the opposite.

While existing teachers may have learned to tune out much of the negativity, they face increasingly challenging state and federal regulations that require more paperwork and non-teaching tasks than ever before.

The fact remains that despite economic declines, the barrage of negative commentaries, and the increasing regulatory pressures, we need more teachers than ever. And now, more than ever, we need the best and the brightest to be teaching our children, and preparing them for college and careers.

Teachers work every day to improve student learning. In the end, as I have said repeatedly, it will make an important difference if we treat all our public servants as the heroes they truly are, and make sure they know how highly their contributions are valued. Without bright, competent, caring individuals to teach our children, our great country will change, but not in a way that is positive.

It is in our hands to alter our rhetoric, to focus on the invaluable job teachers do every day, and to voice our appreciation for their contributions. There was a time when people who spewed hate were considered pariahs. The time has come to return to those virtues of civility and humanity. The price for the loss of those values is too steep to pay, especially for our children.