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Voices / Column

Shortage of teachers: alarming, but not surprising

We cannot long survive as a leader among nations if we continue to under-educate our children and underpay those who teach them.

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

Recently, in a column about mentors, I wrote about a teacher I had in middle school who helped me through a rough time just by being present and listening. I visited her every day after classes because she made me feel noticed when my classmates didn’t. Her calming presence helped me know that I mattered. That kind of validation can be deeply important when you are 13-years-old.

When I was in high school, I had several teachers I will never forget. Miss Davenport was one of them. Every day she would write a word on the blackboard, charging us with learning its definition and using it in a sentence. They were delicious words, like “ubiquitous,” “serendipity,” “obsequious,” “superfluous,” “sartorial,” “inchoate.”

These words sounded like music to me, and they were, I’m sure, the foundation for my love of language.

Mr. Jones was a stickler for good writing, and “Doc” Castle made Latin seem fun. Another teacher whose name I can’t recall helped us grasp geometry and algebra such that we felt competent in math.

All of that in a public school in small-town America in the 1950s because the teachers we had were sharp and dedicated and loved kids.

* * *

Today, we have Betsy DeVos and her ilk taking away the rights of LGBTQ students, stopping after-school and lunch programs for poor children, and shutting down civil-rights investigations while admonishing striking teachers to stop being so selfish.

I have been a teacher as well as a student. Having taught at the university level, I experienced up close and personal the impact a teacher can have, whether in the classroom or during a crisis.

Nothing is more satisfying than helping emerging adults develop a worldview that is informed and compassionate. Nothing is more challenging than having a student break down emotionally as they share the pain in their lives. And nothing is more rewarding than watching a student have an a-ha moment or hearing them say your class changed the course of their lives.

Sometimes the best you can do is help them learn how to write a clear and coherent sentence — but just watch the look on their faces when they master that ability.

* * *

Teaching has always been an undervalued profession, largely because it was seen as an avocation embraced by women, and we all know that women’s work is never properly rewarded.

But now, in the 21st century, surely the time has come to realize what teachers really do and what they contribute to our collective future, even if you don’t have kids yourself.

It’s also time to grasp what teachers contribute out of pocket or pro bono to their classrooms, and the price they pay to remain in those classrooms because they love teaching and they are committed to the kids they serve.

According to one website tracking teacher salaries, in the U.S. the median salary for teachers last year was $41,500. But salaries vary widely geographically, and they have been dropping steadily.

Adjusting for inflation, teachers are making about $30 less per week than they used to. Many of those who are striking report weekly incomes in the $300 range, which is why they’re taking on second and third jobs to stay afloat.

One science teacher reported that he makes twice as much at his second full-time job as a waiter as he does as a teacher. Another says that her 19-year old daughter who works as a nanny makes more than she does.

Teachers are also footing the bill for things they need in the classroom, ranging from books and supplies to rugs and furniture.

That’s what the strikes are all about in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, and Colorado as the movement for teacher-power grows, because teachers’ lives matter, too.

* * *

The fact is, we can’t afford to lose many more dedicated, qualified teachers. Already, teacher-education enrollment is down by about 30 percent in recent years, and job turnover is rising.

The resulting shortage of teachers is alarming but not surprising. After all, who wants to deal with unmanageable class size, inadequate facilities, and cuts to health care?

Looked at through a wider lens, we cannot long survive as a vibrant and productive nation, or leader among nations, if we continue to under-educate our children and underpay those who teach them — and in doing so, undervalue education.

Already, prisons in this country absorb more of our tax dollars than public higher education did 40 years ago. They are filled with high-school dropouts and people with low literacy. It is a disgrace that we spend three times more for each prisoner than we invest in each child’s education annually.

Nelson Mandela was right when he claimed that “[e]ducation is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So was Malala Yousafzai: “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”

We need to change our world now — one child, one teacher, one book, one pen at a time.

And who better to lead the way than America’s dedicated, compassionate, determined, and sadly devalued educators?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #461 (Wednesday, May 30, 2018). This story appeared on page D4.

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