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To Address Teacher Shortages, Create Conditions for Educators to Thrive

This is the first of a multi-part conversation on the teacher supply.


Katrina Boone

Many observers see teacher shortages as a result of districts and states underpaying and overworking teachers. However, increasing teacher pay is not the entire answer to the problem. Shortages persist even in areas in which teachers are being paid adequately, and increasing pay will not begin to address the ways in which teaching often feels too challenging and, at times, unsustainable—sentiments that cause issues with both retention and recruitment.

What can states and districts do to attract and retain teachers? How can we reimagine the profession as one that is not just sustainable but desirable and engaging?

Dan Pink's TED Talk, "The Puzzle of Motivation," argues that humans are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As a teacher, I'd like to point out that these qualities are all too often absent from the teaching profession. If states and districts can create schools in which teachers see autonomy, mastery, and purpose clearly in their profession, they will go a long way toward solve teacher-shortage problems.                      

Autonomy. Between the constant scramble to create lessons aligned with districts' favorite new fads and the endless pressure to prepare students for standardized tests, teaching today offers little in the way of self-directed work. Schools are organized with a top-down leadership structure, in which teacher (and student) voices carry the least weight in school-wide decision making.  In "Is There Really a Teacher Shortage?," Richard Ingersoll points out that "inadequate administrative support" and lack of "collective teacher influence over school-wide decisions"—an overall lack of autonomyare among the leading causes of school-staffing issues.

Mastery. Ideally, teaching is the perfect career for those who seek mastery in their lives. There are countless opportunities to explain something differently, to try a new instructional strategy, and to build relationships with students and families. But Pink defines mastery as "the desire to get better and better at something that matters," and many teachers simply do not have the time to do that. Teachers are bogged down by the myriad of roles that 21st-century educators must play: emotional counselor, social worker, test proctor. More than anything, they're bogged down by endless training sessions masquerading as professional development. One would think mandated professional development would quench the teacher's (or would-be teacher's) thirst for mastery, but teachers spend most of their PD hours in trainings they neither deliver, select, learn from, nor enjoy.

Purpose. More than anything, Pink argues, people are driven by a sense of purposea belief that the work they are doing will improve the lives of others, a hope that they will leave a legacy long after they're gone. But the current trend toward "demonizing" teaching in the media, along with a dearth of resources, student behavior issues, unfunded pensions, lack of leadership opportunities, lack of parent engagement, and increased emphasis on standardized tests slowly plunders that sense of purpose. Understandably, many potential and current teachers see the problems educators face as too big to tackle.

A Path Forward on Teacher Shortages

Addressing teacher shortages must begin with increasing teacher-leadership opportunities. Ingersoll's research indicates that schools face less turnover when teachers' input is valued. "Teacher-powered" schools, like Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, focus on "providing all teachers and staff within the school a voice in all school-based decisions that impact student learning." They also tout retention rates at or above 95 percent.

Districts must also increase opportunities for professional learning selected by and delivered by their best teachers, so teachers have a real opportunity to pursue mastery in collaboration with their colleagues. The Alliance for Excellent Education's report, "On the Path to Equity," implores states and districts to create professional learning opportunities that "foster collegial collaboration in pursuit of high-impact, evidence-based practices."

Schools and districts can do more to make the first few years of teacher more manageable through comprehensive induction programs and implementing multi-classroom leadership pods. This design, which reduces the workload of some teachers by shifting the responsibility for tasks like lesson planning and assessment design to a teacher-leader, gives teachers the opportunity to focus on lesson delivery, instructional strategies, and student relationships.

These strategies could help to create a renewed sense of purpose not only for educators, but for the public. Teaching is really about forming strong relationships with kids and giving them the skills they'll need to thrive in a future we can't even imagine yet. Without that clarity, it will always be difficult to attract and retain the best people for the job.

Katrina Boone (@katrinaboone) works as a Teacher Leader on Special Assignment with the Kentucky Department of Education. In the mornings, she teaches junior English classes at Shelby County High School in Shelbyville, Ky., and in the afternoons she works on teacher-leadership and educator voice initiatives across the state. She is also a fellow of the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals and a Teacher Champion with the Collaborative for Student Success.


Read more from this roundtable discussion on teacher recruitment and retention.

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