I can remember the joy of being offered a full-time, second-grade teaching position right out of college in 2007.
Teaching was a stable job and a purposeful profession, offering retirement and health insurance. After four years of being in and out of classrooms through practicums and student teaching, I was ready.
I never dreamed as a college graduate that in the midst of my first year of teaching I would encounter abject poverty, confiscate illegal substances from a second grader, and conduct backpack checks in the hallway, making sure these checks were in view of a security camera after a student brought a BB gun to school.
Not to mention the overwhelming reality of a recession that had districts scrambling to cut costs as much as possible. For many of us who entered the teaching profession in that tumultuous economy, we were among the “last hired, first hired.”
We were assured that the budget expenditures for our jobs would probably get renewed, but that it would take the summer to know whether we had a job.
But still I was called to teach. I was called to be a model and an example to students of life-long learning, kindness, and compassion.
I didn’t take lightly signing my contract that contained a morality clause indicating that, as a teacher, I was seen as a moral guide.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that my year in high-poverty classrooms unearthed a call to ministry. Encountering hungry children who didn’t have beds to sleep in or access to reliable utilities ignited a passion for social justice that drove me to seminary and ministry.
My call wasn’t all that different from my call to the classroom. It turns out kindness and compassion aren’t just subjects for the second-grade classroom. Our society needs teachers and clergy to serve as moral guides, to hold us accountable and to act with compassion and kindness to our neighbors.
Historically, teachers and schools have been the place where students encounter the expectations for how we live and work with each other.
“Since the advent of schooling, adults have expected the schools to contribute positively to the moral education of children. When the first common schools were founded in the New World, moral education was the prime concern,” writes Kevin Ryan in “A Brief History of Moral Education.”
We practice in school how to take turns, how to help someone up when they are injured, and how to have good sportsmanship because these are the values of our society.
If teachers and schools teach us how to behave, then religious institutions teach us why we behave this way. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus or other great teachers and leaders so that we can have a peaceful and loving world.
In the wake of the pandemic recession, we encountered burnout and shortages in two key institutions through which society receives moral guidance. Due to a national teacher shortage, there are districts that are combining classes, unable to hire substitutes and unable to hire new teachers.
The toil of the pandemic, combined with grueling schedules and low pay, have teachers looking elsewhere for employment, especially in high-needs subjects like special education and the sciences.
But the biggest concern is that teachers aren’t waiting until the end of the year to resign. They are resigning in the middle of the school year, leaving districts and schools scrambling to find someone to fill in.
The Wall Street Journal reports that 300,000 teachers quit between February 2022 and May 2022, and schools of education aren’t graduating enough teachers after this exodus.
Clergy members have also felt the pandemic’s impact. In trying to adapt to virtual worship experiences and differing perspectives of safety protocols, many clergy have decided to leave the profession altogether.
Over 50% of millennial pastors reported that they were considering leaving the profession. In addition, many pastors who were close to retirement took the pandemic as a sign to step away from ministry.
With the exodus of so many from these critical professionals, we find ourselves trying to figure out what is right and good and important to think on. Without these voices stirring our souls towards making the world a better place, we default to selfish ambition and vain conceit.
Perhaps we are already seeing the impact of these vacancies. Mass shootings were high in 2022. Domestic violence rates are staggering.
We are weathering the storm of uncertainty and navigating the reeling changes to how we used to live. We need our moral compasses to guide us safely to shore.
We need teachers and members of the clergy to hold us accountable. We need reminders, daily and weekly, to live with kindness and compassion. When we lose our moral compasses, we lose our way.
Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing.