By Laura Boyce
Who was that one teacher who made a difference – maybe even a life-changing difference – in your life? For most of us, a face and a name immediately materialize in our minds.
Mine was Ms. Bartlett, my 8th-grade algebra teacher, who helped me discover the thrill of figuring out a really challenging math problem and fueled a love of learning that led me to become a teacher myself. For you, maybe it was the first teacher who looked like you or shared your background, or one who saw something in you that others – even yourself – couldn’t see, or who unleashed a love of a subject or career path that shaped the direction of your life.
As a former high school teacher and elementary and middle school principal, who also works with hundreds of educators from all over Pennsylvania every day, I believe teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible. Our entire society quite literally falls apart if we don’t have great teachers.
But despite the amazing power of educators – every single one of us has at least one teacher we’ll never forget – Pennsylvania is currently facing a teacher shortage that threatens not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth.
If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward.
And at this pivotal moment in our history, the train is dangerously close to going off the tracks. I won’t cite every statistic available about the gravity of this crisis, from declining enrollments in teacher prep programs to rising resignation rates to skyrocketing teacher burnout to vacancy rates. Because numbers only tell part of the story.
When I was a principal, back before the pandemic and before teacher shortages had gotten nearly this bad, I had a 5th-grade teacher vacancy for over half a year. We couldn’t get substitutes, and didn’t have the staff available to cover classes internally, so I ended up teaching 5th grade nearly full-time for about six months. I got to school at 5 a.m., worked 14-hour days, tried my best to juggle my administrative duties as well, and it nearly killed me.
As educator shortages have spread, a principal I’ve worked with who was similarly trying to cover classes at her school developed debilitating stress-induced vertigo and was forced to resign mid-year.
Another teacher had to be hospitalized with a bladder infection because she was covering classes during her prep times and went so long without a bathroom break. These shortages cause a vicious cycle that makes conditions for the educators there untenable. And that’s not to mention the effects on students.
Imagine being a student with no teacher, your class being split up among other classrooms every day or experiencing a revolving door of substitutes and tired teachers covering your class during their free period. How can we expect students to learn, recover from the academic and social-emotional fallout from the pandemic, and prepare for college and career without teachers?
Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are heartened that the Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released a comprehensive educator workforce strategy informed by their recommendations and input from the field.
We’re eager to partner with the department and partners such as the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania, and we’ll be convening more partners, stakeholders, and policymakers this fall to continue to address this crisis.
Educator shortages are not unique to Pennsylvania, and it will take bold and creative steps to tackle it in a multipronged manner, as has been done in Tennessee and other states. It will also take resources, not only from the Department but also from the General Assembly and our federal government. But there is no more vital priority than investing in our educator workforce, including at the early childhood level.
Every child deserves teachers who see and affirm them for who they are and who they can become. And every parent wants their child to have teachers who believe in them, challenge them, and help them step into their greatness.
Pennsylvania’s educators pour their hearts into helping our most precious resource, our children, grow and unlock their unlimited potential. It’s time to elevate teachers – the most important profession in our society – to the level of appreciation and prestige they deserve, and invest in them so that they can continue pouring into our children.
Laura Boyce is the executive director of Teach Plus Pennsylvania, an education non-profit that empowers excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success. Readers may email her at [email protected].
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