Both New and Veteran Teachers Need Full Toolboxes To Hit The Ground Running.
Even before the pandemic, school leaders sounded the alarm on the issue of recruiting and retaining a qualified teaching force. But since the spring of 2020 numerous studies have outlined how severe the teacher shortage has become. While the problem itself is complex and has a number of underlying causes, it doesn’t mean we can’t start addressing the issue before it becomes an even deeper crisis. One of the best ways we can help teachers is to set them up with a full toolbox from the first day of each new school year.
Having recently moved out of the classroom after 20 years of teaching middle school, I’ve come to think deeply about what the job of being an educator actually entails. Generally, I look at teaching as two distinct elements: the time spent with students, and the time getting ready to spend time with students. The former is always a whirlwind of dozens of micro-decisions per minute, doing several tasks at once, and being “on” in a way that feels comparable to the work of live performers, nurses, or air traffic controllers. Because of the intensity and dynamism of being in a classroom full of students, it can be difficult to take time in the moment to be reflective. That’s why the time spent getting ready to be with students is such a critical piece of the recruitment and retention puzzle. The better prepared teachers are, and the more they feel like they have a full toolbox from the minute students arrive in the morning, the less stressed they’ll feel, and the better we’ll be able to prevent burnout.
Time spent with students is the most intense part of every educator’s day
One thing was absolutely clear to me within the first few weeks of my teaching career: students are hilarious, unpredictable, smart and incisive, but need lots of repetition and affirmation. They want to learn but need to know how, not just what. Being in a room full of middle schoolers for me was the time when I felt most at ease, most in a state of flow, and felt like I was living in the present―not worried about what came before or what was coming next. My brain was simultaneously assessing and communicating with individual students, thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with the lesson at hand, and creating and maintaining the positive work, social, and learning environment I wanted for my classroom. It was a lot. I’ve never felt the kind of exhaustion as I did on Friday afternoons, getting in the car after a long week and allowing my brain to shift into a lower gear. Teaching is like being on a heightened state of alert for long periods of time: it’s exhilarating; but if teachers aren’t set up for success in those moments, it can also be unsustainable.
What does it mean to help our teachers get ready for their time with students? At a macro level, it means that we need new teachers recruited into the field with realistic expectations of what the job is, and we prepare our recruits with solid planning, great lessons, and practices that foster resilience. For our more experienced teachers, it means that we give them opportunities to refresh, recharge, and reinvigorate their practice. To prevent burnout, we need a way to take some of the burden off of our teachers in a way that maximizes efficiency and allows them to channel their efforts more directly into their classroom work. Unfortunately, some of the trends in the education space seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
The current landscape of the teaching profession is unsteady
Even before the pandemic, teacher turnover rates were high―on average close to 10% annually―with those numbers weighted towards newer teachers, those in high-needs schools and districts, and those in specific fields including special education, math, and science. Since the pandemic, the rates of teachers saying they have seriously considered leaving the profession in the past couple of years have been staggeringly high. According to a study conducted by Education Week1 in the spring of 2021, 54% of teachers said they are “somewhat” or “very likely” to exit the classroom. In the fall of 2019, that number had been at 34%. Add to that the 84% of teachers who reported the job being more stressful since the pandemic began. A cursory look at these numbers, the myriad articles published on the difficulties of recruiting new teachers, and my own anecdotal experience on the ground, have convinced me that the profession is at an inflection point.
Just as the problem is complex and represents many underlying causes, the solutions we offer have to be equally multifaceted. There’s no easy way to bring our educators back into a state of sustainable joy that many of us maintained as the driving force behind what we do each day. Some questionable solutions2 have included lowering the bar to enter the profession, including issuing more emergency teacher licenses, eliminating certain requirements or test scores to be eligible, or even recruiting National Guard members with no classroom experience to be substitutes. While none of these are ideal, they represent a kind of desperation on behalf of districts to fill these crucial roles in their schools. These are reactionary ideas.3 We need to focus on preventative measures that set our educators―new and veteran alike―on a path to success. I’d argue that one fundamental way we can do that is to maximize the time teachers spend getting ready. Not just the number of minutes we give them, but the efficiency and effectiveness of that time.
Time spent getting ready to be with students can be the most impactful part of a teacher’s day
When I first started teaching back in 2001, the lesson planning process was pretty linear. Teachers would head to the faculty lounge during their ‘prep period’ and write out their curriculum process for the coming days. This would include the schedule, the goals, and the procedures necessary for ‘covering’ a certain amount of content material in a given set of time. Planning was often an individual task, and one that could be very teacher-directed.
Now, that process looks very different. The biggest factor has been a shift to a more student-centered design. Teachers are expected to create dynamic learning experiences that are aligned with the curriculum, while allowing for remediation of skills for struggling students and extension opportunities for those students who have already mastered certain skills. Lessons need to foster collaboration, problem-solving approaches, critical thinking, and growth mindsets in students. Pressure and expectations have increased exponentially on our teachers. They are expected to teach, counsel, assess and monitor student wellbeing, and communicate all of that to parents. And, though it may seem counterintuitive, the explosion of online resources have made the job of teacher preparation even more difficult. With so many possible tools and lessons just a Google search away, teachers now need to be evaluators and curators of vast amounts of content.
This is where smart, targeted, and helpful interventions can make a big difference. Instead of asking teachers to create lessons and find resources from scratch, we can provide them with libraries of high-quality, proven curriculum materials that teachers can use, personalize, and trust. This is the “toolbox.” The more effective we are in taking some of the planning burden off of our teachers, the more they can focus on being those dynamic classroom practitioners we want them to be. Teachers need these resources from Day 1.
The digitization of our classrooms has been transformative to the way we teach, and in the way that students learn and interact. I’m able to take my students on a virtual tour of the Egyptian pyramids, to video chat with a classroom on the other side of the globe, to show them the excavation archives from deep within a museum’s library, and to ask them to record and share their reactions in real time―all in a single class period. The power that this connectivity represents is an exponential multiplier of my impact on student learning. But it also means that the time I spend getting ready to do all of these things with students is a fundamental part of the job. Making it easier would have an instant impact on helping our teachers reduce stress and address one of the underlying causes of teacher burnout. For new teachers, this preparation is even more critical to the likelihood that they choose to stay in the profession. Giving teachers a library of ready-made, reliable digital resources would help us prepare teachers at scale.
For many teachers, especially new teachers, the lesson-planning process can be daunting. It can feel like an endless search for “just right” materials among a sea of “almost, but not quite right.” Unfortunately, a substantial number of teachers turn to sites that have voluminous amounts of material but virtually no quality control. Specifically, sites that facilitate the buying and selling of lesson products often have no way of assuring content accuracy, sensible DEIB frameworks, and even the most basic alignment to curriculum standards. Sites like these incentivize mass production and reinforce a system in which teachers feel they need to spend their own money to acquire the tools they need to be able to teach students. A much more effective way would be for districts to evaluate and provide easy access to ready-made materials that are high quality, standards-aligned, and easy to use. By eliminating some of the friction teachers have in gathering materials, districts can likewise eliminate one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of the job.
Finally, unlike sites that facilitate a freewheeling marketplace of anything-goes curriculum materials, districts need to be sure that the materials they make available to their teachers are proven. Imagine harnessing all of the best ideas from experienced educators, shared without regard to geography, or who might be in the faculty lounge at a given moment. We want to take the best of online connectivity, but to put up high bars of quality control so our teachers don’t have to worry about constantly checking and modifying substandard content. Hopefully, this is one component in the sustained, multifaceted solution we need to help recruit and retain the great teachers our students deserve. Let’s empower teachers in the planning and preparation of their work, so that their time with students can be as impactful as possible.
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1EducationWeek, May 4, 2021, Loewus, Liana: “Why Teachers Leave—or Don’t: A Look at the Numbers” edweek.org
2Education Week, June 28, 2022, Will, Madeline: “States Relax Teacher Certification Rules to Combat Shortages” edweek.org
3New Hampshire Bulletin, Smith, Douglas A.; Tran, Henry: “The Most Recent Efforts to Combat Teacher Shortages Don’t Address the Real Problems” newhampshirebulletin.com
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Stephen Anthony Guerriero, M.A., M.Ed., is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He was a twenty-year Social Studies educator at the middle and elementary levels with Needham Public Schools and previously Dedham Public Schools (Massachusetts). Stephen received a Master of Arts in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University; a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College; and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Italian Studies, and Latin at Boston University.