Steven Singer: Top Five Actions to Stop the Teacher Exodus During COVID and Beyond
Steven Singer is a writer and teacher in Pennsylvania. In this post, he offers some concrete advice for stemming the tide of teacher departures. Reposted with permission.
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, schools across the United States are on the brink of collapse.
There is a classroom teacher shortage.
There is a substitute teacher shortage.
There is a bus driver shortage.
There is a special education aide shortage.
The people we depend on to staff our public schools are running away in droves.
It’s a clear supply and demand issue that calls for deep structural changes.
However, it’s not really new. We’ve needed better compensation and treatment of school employees for decades, but our policymakers have been extremely resistant to do anything about it.
Instead, they’ve given away our tax dollars to corporations through charter and voucher school initiatives. They’ve siphoned funding to pay for more standardized testing, teaching to the test, and ed tech software.
But the people who actually do the work of educating our youth. We’ve left them out in the cold.
Now with the smoldering pandemic and increased impacts on the health, safety and well-being of teachers and other staff, the exodus has merely intensified.
We need a popular, national movement demanding action from our state and federal governments. However, in the meantime, there are several things our local school districts can do to stem the tide of educators fleeing the profession.
These are simple, cheap and common sense methods to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom and weather the storm.
However, let me be clear. None of these can solve the problem, alone. And even ALL of these will not stop the long-term flight of educators from our schools without better salaries and treatment.
1) Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks
The list of tasks an average teacher is expected to accomplish every day is completely unrealistic.
Think about it. Just to get through a normal day teachers need to provide instruction, discipline students, grade papers, facilitate classwork, troubleshoot technology, provide written and verbal feedback, counsel disputes, role model correct behavior, monitor the halls, lunches, breakfasts and unstructured time, meet with co-workers, follow Individual Education Plans, scaffold lessons for different learners and learning styles…
The list is truly staggering.
And it never stops.
Researchers have estimated that on average teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That’s about 4 decisions a minute.
No one can keep up that pace, day-in, day-out, without strain. No one can do it without their work suffering.
If we truly want to help teachers feel empowered to stay in the profession, we need to reduce the burden. And the best way to do that is to eliminate everything unnecessary from their plates.
That means no staff meeting just to have a staff meeting. No shotgun scattered initiatives that teachers are expected to execute and we’ll see what will stick. No reams of paperwork. No professional development that wasn’t specifically requested by teachers or is demonstrably useful.
Nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.
2) No Formal Lesson Plans
The number one offender is formal lesson plans.
I’m not saying we should tell teachers they don’t have to plan what they’re doing in their classes. I’m not sure how an educator could realistically enter a classroom of students and just wing it.
However, the process of writing and handing in formal lesson plans is absolutely unnecessary.
Teachers gain nothing from writing detailed plans about what they expect to do in their classes complete with reference to Common Core Academic Standards. They gain nothing from acting as subordinates to an all knowing administrator who probably has not been trained in their curriculum nor has their classroom experience teaching it.
For educators with at least 3-5 years under their belts, formal lesson plans are nothing but an invitation to micromanagement.
Should administrators monitor what their teachers are doing? Absolutely. But the best way to do that is to actually observe the teacher in the classroom doing the work. And to conference with the teacher before and after the observation with the goal of understanding what they’re doing and how to best help them improve.
Forcing teachers to set aside time from their already overburdened schedules to fill out lesson plans that administrators don’t have time to read and (frankly) probably don’t have the training or experience to fully comprehend is top down managerial madness.
3) More Planning Time
Teachers need time to plan.
It’s pathetic that I actually have to explain this.
Parents need called. Papers need graded. Lessons need strategized. IEP’s need to be read, understood and put into practice.
All this can only happen within a temporal framework. If you don’t give teachers that framework – those minutes and hours – you’re just expecting they’ll do it at home, after school or some other time that will have to be stolen from their own families, robbed from their own needs and down time.
Every administrator on the planet preaches the need for self-care, but few actually offer the time to make it a reality.
Even if we could discover exactly how much time was necessary for every teacher to get everything done in a given day – that wouldn’t be enough time. Because teachers are human beings. We need time to process, to evaluate, to think and, yes, to rest.
I know sometimes I have to stop wrestling with a problem I’m having in class because I’m getting nowhere. After two decades in the classroom I’ve learned that sometimes you have to give your brain a rest and approach a problem again later from a different vantage point.
I need to read a scholarly article or even for pleasure. I need to watch YouTube videos that may be helpful to my students. I need to get up and go for a walk, perhaps even just socialize for a moment with my coworkers.
None of that is time wasted because my brain is still working. My unconscious is still trying untie the Gordian knot of my workday and when I finally sit down to revisit the issue, I often find it looser and more easily handled.
There is no simpler way to put it.
Do not ask your teacher to sub. Do not ask them to attend meetings. Do not ask them to help you plan building wide initiatives – UNLESS you can guarantee it won’t interfere with their plans.
I know this is difficult right now with so many staff falling ill or being so plowed under that they simply can’t make it to work.
However, the more you push them to give up their plans, the more you diminish returns.
Not only will their work suffer but so will their health and willingness to continue on the job.
Some districts are finding creative ways to increase planning time such as releasing students early one day a week. We did that at my district last year and it was extremely helpful to meet all the additional duties required just to keep our building open. However, as the new school year dawned and decision makers decided to simply ignore continuing pandemic issues, this time went away.
Most teachers are in the profession because it’s a calling. They care about doing the best job they can for their students.
If you take away their ability to do that, why would they stay?
4) Better Communication/ Better COVID Safety
Communication is a two way street.
You can’t have one person telling everyone else what to do and expect to have a good working relationship.
Administrators may get to make the final decision, but they need to listen to what their teachers tell them and take that into account before doing so.
This means setting aside the proper time to hear what your staff has to say.
Many administrators don’t want to do that because things can devolve into a series of complaints. But you know what? TOUGH.
It is your job to listen to those complaints and take them seriously.
Sometimes just allowing your staff to voice their concerns is helpful all in itself. Sometimes offering them space to speak sparks solutions to problems – and a whole room full of experienced, dedicated educators can solve any problem better than one or two managers locked away in the office.
However, not only do administrators need to listen, they need to speak.
When issues crop up, they need to make sure the staff is aware of what is happening.
This is especially true during the pandemic.
We are so sick of half truths about who has Covid, who is quarantined, what is being done to keep us safe, etc.
No child should return to the classroom after a negative COVID test without the teacher already being appraised.
No child should be placed in quarantine without the teachers knowledge.
Safety protocols should be the product of the entire staff’s input. If everyone doesn’t feel safe, no one feels safe.
This is really the bottom line.
Teachers need to feel respected.
We need to know that administrators and school board members understand our struggles and are on our side.
I don’t mean taking a day or even one week out of the year to celebrate Teacher Appreciation. I don’t mean free donuts or coupons to Sam’s Club. I don’t even mean a mug with an inspirational message.
No snide comments at school board meetings.
No gossipy whispering in the community.
Being a teacher should mean something to district leaders. And they should prove it in every thing they do.
The items I mentioned here go some ways to showing that respect.
Eliminating unnecessary tasks, not requiring formal lesson plans, respecting our planning time, better communicating and safety measures are all necessary to keeping your teachers in the classroom.
But they are not sufficient.
As a nation we need to change our attitude and treatment of teachers.
No profession exists without them. They create every other job that exists.
We need to start paying them accordingly. We need to start treating them as important as they are. We need to ensure that they have the time, tools and satisfaction necessary to be the best they can be.
No district can do that alone. No school director or administrator can do that.
But these are some ways you can start.