Teacher shortage obscures deeper issues

February 07, 2000|By Stephen Coleman

IT'S A SHAME that it takes a shortage to make us take note of teachers.

Newspaper headlines describe a teacher shortage that has become the latest education crisis. Suddenly school systems across the country stumble over themselves competing for new teachers, especially in hard-to-fill areas like math and special education. In Baltimore, administrators entice new teachers with offers of $5,000 toward closing fees on a home and $1,200 in relocation costs. Teachers are the new hot item.

Once the shortage has passed, as it eventually will, teachers will retreat into the shadows. And we will have missed an opportunity for meaningful reform -- reform that goes beyond blaming teachers to creating a profession that attracts, develops and retains talented and ambitious individuals, ones who will play a central role in reshaping our schools as well as teaching our children.

Many talented and ambitious teachers leave the field. The attrition rate in the first five years of teaching is 22 percent. With few opportunities for responsibility and autonomy, the normal benefits of professional growth, they leave out of frustration, feeling there is little room to advance.

One of the ironies of teaching is that we reward good teachers by promoting them out of the classroom.

When I student taught in Baltimore City, my university supervisor said to me, by way of a compliment, that after a few years of teaching, I could become an administrator. The message was clear: Teaching is a stage to be gotten through on the way to something bigger and better. Teaching, too often, is seen as a means to other things, rather than a worthy end in itself.

Teachers should not have to choose between their own professional growth and doing what they love -- educating children. The desire to move ahead should not preclude the desire to teach. In fact, professional growth reinforces teaching: Professionally satisfied individuals make better classroom teachers.

As long as we fail to give teachers the responsibility and autonomy in the workplace they need and deserve, we will continue to drive off capable individuals and wear down those who remain.

Education reform depends on giving teachers greater responsibility and autonomy. Too often, reformers impose changes from the top down. They frequently fail to ask teachers for input and ignore their views on what will work -- though teachers are responsible for implementing the reforms.

Rather than deriding teachers as obstacles to reform, we should champion them as catalysts of change. Some reformers have caught on.

The founders of Success for All, one of the more effective whole-school reform movements in the country, require that teachers vote, in secret, to adopt the program before they will enter into a contract with a school. Success for All realizes that having teachers on board and involved is central to the success of the program.

The real shortage in teaching is not of teachers, but of opportunities. Without opportunities for growth, including input into important education decisions, we waste the talent and experience of those on the front lines. This is the real education crisis that deserves headlines.

Stephen Coleman is a graduate of the policy sciences institute at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a middle school teacher.

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