The teaching career is changing, and not for the better.
Teachers are leaving the profession in alarming numbers, and many plan to leave earlier than they thought they would.
My high school senior year AP English teacher died unexpectedly last week. Mr. Wood was a legend at Lake Highlands High School in Richardson Independent School District in Dallas, where I grew up.
My Facebook feed has been flooded with tributes to Mr. Wood. He made an impact upon hundreds (thousands?) of students over his decades of teaching.
He was feared for his infamously hard class and equally revered for his coolness. He was an icon.
I have loved reading former students’ tributes to him and remembering all the things I had forgotten about that class. But there are a few things I will never forget.
I remember every circle of Dante’s Inferno, because we had to analyze all 100 cantos. It taught me how to work really hard and not to give up.
I also remember him helping me with my college application essays, telling me I could do better. And I remember his pride when I wrote something well.
He didn’t just teach me to write. He gave me a love for writing, along with an absolute disdain for the passive voice.
Mr. Wood’s students did not slip through the cracks. He was a seasoned professional. He knew how to connect with teenagers, and he recognized the warning signs when they needed help.
It’s easy to assume that the stress of teaching during COVID-19 is to blame for the mass exodus of teachers. And surely that’s part of it.
But there are systemic issues that are de-professionalizing the teaching career. And it’s working. If the endgame is privatization of public schools, then de-professionalizing teachers is an absolutely critical chapter of the playbook.
Teachers are the most expensive part of a school’s budget. If schools can reduce that human capital, they can save a lot of money.
Cutting costs is an essential step toward making a profit, which drives any market-based enterprise. And converting our public school system to a privatized school system means entering that marketplace where profits are the driving factor.
So, what are the ways proponents of school privatization seek to de-professionalize teaching?
Step one: Don’t pay a fair wage.
Related to this step is stripping teachers’ unions of their power. The de-unionization didn’t have the effect it was supposed to have, because teachers voluntarily rallied for better pay and working conditions all over the country in 2018. However, we will likely not see another win for many years.
Step two: Fund and promote programs like Teach for America that present teaching as a short-term job.
Seen simply as a stepping-stone to other careers, these programs assume that underserved populations are best taught by a revolving door of educated young adults with no experience.
Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire are education historians in Massachusetts who co-authored A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, forecasting that the trajectory we are on is leading to teaching becoming part of the gig economy.
Some private schools have tinkered with this already. They pay their teachers hourly, ensuring they don’t work enough to qualify for benefits.
And charter schools, at least in Texas, don’t have to hire certified teachers. Instead, they can contract with experts in other fields, like hiring a physicist to teach physics, but one with no teaching experience.
Step three: Sow doubt in the public eye of the trustworthiness of teachers.
You’ve heard these talking points: teachers are supposedly indoctrinating students with a liberal, Marxist agenda and exposing them to inappropriate, even pornographic materials. I’m not going to give this slander any credence.
Finally, step four: Put limits on what they can and cannot teach.
The ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing has already restrained the creative capacity of teachers. One Oklahoma lawmaker wants to take it a step further, making it possible for a teacher to be sued if something they teach conflicts with a family’s deeply held convictions, religious or otherwise.
Virtual learning in 2020 gave parents the “proof” they needed to mobilize against the autonomy of teachers. Parents hover in the background of every Zoom class and Zoom records every word a teacher says. Any misstep can be used against them.
It’s no wonder teachers are leaving the profession.
If you stagnate or decrease their pay, strip them of bargaining abilities, devalue experience, limit what and how they can teach, and even alter public perception of teachers as heroes and role models into potentially bad influences, and then pile a pandemic on top and ask them to risk their health while teaching, who would stay?
I’ve been thinking this week about where I would be without teachers like Mr. Wood. Would he have stuck it out for an entire career if he were in his first decade of teaching today?
His longevity built his reputation. If you were a student in the Lake Highlands school system, you looked toward your senior year with trepidation.
You knew you were going to have a life-changing experience in Mr. Wood’s class. You knew you would be loved, but it would be tough love. You would work hard, and you would cry tears of frustration.
Your writing would become more refined than you ever thought it could be. You would love school because of him. You would do well in college because of him. You would never forget him.
Who is your Mr. Wood? Now, imagine where you would be without your Mr. Wood.
And know that your children or grandchildren who are going through school today might not get a teacher like that if we continue doing what we’re doing to teachers.
We need to be cultivating a system full of Mr. Woods, not the other way around.
Director of Communications and Development at Fellowship Southwest. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is married to Garrett who pastors Woodland Baptist Church. They have three elementary-aged daughters in public school.