Teaching is a PROFESSION
In the last week, two opinion pieces appeared in the local paper. The first was by a high school senior who no longer wanted to become a teacher and the second was the paper's response about how and why "Gen Z" is turning away from the teaching profession. No one knows 100% why, but I offer this theory- we have never treated educators as the highly trained professionals they are. Here are my random and passionate thoughts.
Let's begin with the media we all consume from birth- TV and movies. Every night there is at least one show on network TV where doctors and/or lawyers are heroes. They are sexy, intelligent, strong, and saving lives. There are also shows set in schools, be it high school or college. In those shows (Community, AP Bio, American Housewife) the educators are buffoons. Often caricatures of stereotypes. There have been exceptions, of course. But scroll through the listings and compare the number of hero lawyer/doctor shows to the hero educator shows currently airing. We have not, through entertainment, shown Gen Z that educators are something to look up to. There was a slew of hero educator movies and shows in the 80's and 90's, many that inspired my generation to turn to the classroom (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dead Poet's Society, Boy Meets World). Somehow, somewhere, Hollywood decided that teachers were not life savers, and yet we want them to be with our children for 6-8 hours a day, 180+ days a year for 12 years. What we show our children through the media they consume, rather directly or indirectly, matters. If we are showing them that the teachers in their life are comedic fodder, how can we expect them to want to become that profession?
But it's more than just entertainment that shows educators on a different level as other professionals. We have always elevated lawyers and doctors but not teachers. I use those two professions to compare because they are very similar in qualifications. To become a doctor or lawyer one must matriculate from a four-year school, your chosen major makes little difference, then attend a specialized school for another two years. One must pass a specific standardized test of knowledge and skill and one must serve as an apprentice to a master in that field. One must continue their training by learning new techniques, new science and laws as they continue in their career. We look up to them as the skilled professionals they are because of these things. We trust our lives in their hands because we know they have worked hard, and in many cases incurred debt, to get to their current status. And we acknowledge all this, as a society, by paying them their worth to us. (and yes, we can argue about insurance rates and how much medical things cost us, and how outrageous some lawyers' hourly fees are; yet our deference to these fields allows those rates to exist)
Now let's compare those two paths to a profession to the path to become an educator. A classroom teacher must matriculate from a four-year college in good standing. They will most likely major in the field they want to teach. Most often for secondary level teachers, a student will major and minor in fields they want to teach, along with taking the education certification classes. One then spends the better part of a school year as a "student teacher", which means you train in the classroom as an apprentice under a master teacher. To be fully certified an educator then takes a series of standardized tests (PRAXIS) that include general knowledge (think SAT on speed) as well as subject matter and general educational theory application. To maintain that certification, a teacher must commit to professional development each year. And while the requirement to be certified is only the four-year degree, most teachers do pursue a Master's at their own cost, knowing they will not see a significant jump in income once that degree is acquired. In our school district, a majority of the administrators have gone even further and hold a PhD.
So a teacher, lawyer, and doctor have to go through similar training and certification to work in their field, yet their pay is wildly different. But, alas, that is not all. Let's look at their day. A doctor sees maybe 30 patients a day (if they are working an 8 hour shift, seeing each patient for 15 minutes). A lawyer may only see 1 client a day, and then spend 4-5 hours on paperwork, and 2-3 hours in a courtroom, setting their own schedule as needed and desired. A teacher in an elementary school will see 30 "clients" for 7 hours, plus then have to speak to several clients' families, review the clients' work, and then make sure the "office" is ready for the next 7 hours with 30 clients at once. A teacher in a secondary school could see 150-200 clients in a day and those clients are not all seeing her/him for the same thing. At 8am they may see 30 clients for 45 minutes about journalism, then have 3 minutes to prepare for their next 30 clients with whom she will see about US History. After their 6-7 client sessions of the day are over, they then meet with a subset of clients for tutoring or an after school activity. They then also have to review all their clients' work and prepare the office for 6 more client meetings the next day.
There is no doubt in my mind, that the way we treat teachers matters. The way we elevate other professions that have to undertake the same rigorous path to certification. The way we pay our educators. The way we devalue to extra work they do each day. The way we belittle their calls for resources inside and outside the classroom. The way they are portrayed in media. All of this is leading to our teacher shortage. We MUST do better for our teachers. And that starts with our school boards and our community. If we value educators the way we should, we elect school boards that will ensure our educators are respected as professionals and paid fairly for their hard work and training.