A teacher shortage is an appreciation shortage
The following was adapted from remarks I gave during the November Shift Series event, Leading The Class, presented by Greenlight Fund Detroit and Strategic Community Partners. Scroll down to watch the full event.
I am the proud daughter of a public-school teacher.
What that meant growing up is that we watched our mother work so many hours preparing her lessons, grading her papers, and fielding calls from her students who needed her for things that were far beyond a lesson plan. It was common to be stopped in the grocery store by people who once had my mother as a teacher who shared how much she meant to them. She remembered each of their names, dreams, and worries.
It also meant she had a Monday dress, a Tuesday dress, a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday dress. Those dresses remained unchanged for years because we couldn’t afford new ones. It meant she worked other part-time gigs when she could to help us make ends meet. She loved her work, and yet she warned me: “Never become a teacher. It’s too hard and too unappreciated.”
Too hard. Too unappreciated.
During this pandemic, many of us have suddenly become adjunct faculty in our children’s lives. Kitchen tables are classrooms and teachers are conductors of a complicated symphony right before our eyes. Whether remote or in-person, the teacher brings ideas to life, adds humor, and tries to connect to their students—even if screens are dark, even if the chaos of everyday life (the teacher’s or the students’) interrupts learning.
We now understand that teachers are rocket scientists and magicians. Therapists and chemical engineers. Artists and lawyers. All in a single class period.
But they are also human. Deeply human.
And this hard, often unappreciated profession needs our attention, our gratitude, and our boldest ideas to keep the teachers we have and inspire future teachers. We must change how we resource our teachers in Michigan and give them everything they need to double down rather than wave a white flag.
I’ve spent the last few months meeting with educators and school leaders to hear their needs, wants, and desires. While it is their job to tell us what is working and what might be possible, it is my job to share some stark data about what we are facing—not to demoralize us, but to motivate us to be bold.
I am sharing data from the Detroit Children’s Fund, which is deeply embedded in both Detroit Public Schools Community District and Detroit charter schools to provide resources, training, and fellowships to new and veteran teachers.
- Between 2006 and 2016, the size of Michigan’s teacher workforce decreased by 16%.
- Michigan teachers are leaving the profession sooner than ever and at a rate higher than the national average. A mere 30% of Michigan teachers recommend education as a career field for the next generation, according to the most recent Launch Michigan survey. As a likely result, fewer college students are pursuing the profession: enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined a whopping 66% since 2009.
While these statistics are starker in places like Detroit and Flint, the problem of underrepresentation is present in nearly every school district in the state.
- 92% of Michigan teachers are White, compared to 67% of our children.
- While our statewide student population is 18% Black, less than 6% of our teachers identify as Black. Why does this matter? Teachers are the connective tissue between what you see and what you will be. A John’s Hopkin study revealed that Black students who’d had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college—and those who’d had two Black teachers were 32% more likely. In Michigan, that means we need to attract more people of color into teaching.
So, what is happening today? What is in the works for tomorrow? How do we seize this moment so that, when history is taught to our grandchildren, teachers highlight this moment as a renaissance that catapulted us into a new era?
In my ongoing listening tour, I’ve heard a few ideas from current teachers: Fund schools equitably and justly. Pay teachers fairly for their countless hours of work both in and out of the classroom. Give teachers a break on their taxes. Invest deeply in mental health and wellness, not just for students but for teachers and principals too. And so on.
Insights from the field
During the Leading The Class event, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District; Dr. Desmond Blackburn, former CEO of New Teacher Center; and Calvin Nellum, a STEM teacher at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy about their ideas to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession for Detroit students.
While impossible to narrow down all their brilliant words and views into a few sentences, here are some key takeaways from each of them as we continue to address critical issues within the teaching profession:
- Dr. Vitti: “If anything is going to happen positively for students, it has to begin in the classroom. There is no better investment that you can make for students other than investing in teachers.”
- Dr. Blackburn: “What if society at large catapulted the teaching profession to the very top of the flagpole? And why don’t we?”
- Mr. Nellum: “When I’m teaching my kids, I have to teach everything through an equity lens.”
Tackling Michigan’s teacher shortage requires both short- and long-term solutions. The urgency of this crisis—teachers feeling unappreciated and exhausted from the pandemic—requires short-term solutions to keep them in the profession for the foreseeable future. And we must continue developing and orchestrating changes to the nature of the profession and the ways we fund it to get more aspiring teachers in the classroom.
Teachers are the bridge between what we face today and what we conquer tomorrow—or what conquers us. If we don’t invest in them with everything we have, then we lose the conductor, the artist, the scientist, the astronomer, the genius that shows up every day to teach our children how to be those things and more. A teacher shortage is an appreciation shortage. Let’s do what we need to now to make this hard job appreciated.