School districts across the country continue to struggle with teacher shortages as a new school year begins. There has been a lot of talk about the reasons behind the shortages and what can be done to improve the situation.
George Theoharis, Professor of Educational Leadership and Inclusive Elementary/Early Childhood Education at Syracuse University School of Education, says the root of the problem is two-fold: “We are experiencing teacher and staffing shortages in schools as the result of 1) long-term issues and 2) recent stresses on the K-12 education system.”
“First, the long-term issues stem from decades of policy and public discussion where K-12 schools are labeled as ‘failing’ and the people who work in them are to blame,” Theoharis notes. “This is both an intentional attack on public schools by some and a disastrous consequence of the era of school accountability. This has led to an unchecked, multi-decade decline in young people going into teaching. Who wants to go into a field discussed and monitored as failing and the cause of our society’s ills?”
Second, Theoharis says the recent stresses stem from the coronavirus pandemic and “parental rights”—“or more accurately, school censorship”—organizing. “The pandemic put unparalleled stress on many aspects of our society, including teaching and working in schools, where teachers and staff faced enormous challenges, significantly expanding the demands on them,” he says. “That stressor, coupled with right-wing activists across the country yelling at school board meetings, telling teachers how to do their job, and in some places enacting policies that promote anti-democratic and inaccurate curriculum, is driving people from the classroom and creating K-12 schools as unwelcoming spaces for new professionals.”
Theoharis explains that solutions need to come from outside of the classroom and calls for a major public investment in education.
“The combination of the long-term and recent issues has led to the shortages we are experiencing across the country. This shortage is falling disproportionately on districts and schools that serve predominantly low-income and children of color,” Theoharis observes. “Much discussion is placed on how schools will solve these staffing shortages, but that discussion is misguided. K-12 schools did not cause these shortages, thus they will not be able to solve them. K-12 schools will plug their staffing holes as best they can with creative ‘band-aid’ solutions until a larger system issue is addressed.”