Lockdowns took a heavy toll on America’s children, a well-documented fact at this point. To some, it may seem the problem is over and we are now in a recovery stage. But working in a school daily, I will tell you this is not the case.
Surveys are forecasting teacher shortages ahead as one of many effects of locking down schools and society. A Rand Corporation report from last year found that close to 25 percent of teachers were considering leaving the profession, and other surveys had that number even higher. Teachers are burned out and exhausted as they bear the brunt of reintegrating students into the classrooms.
Post-Lockdown Catch Up
I teach free enterprise at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, a choice school where the majority of students are inner-city, economically disadvantaged, black kids who attend the private school thanks to a voucher. Like most everywhere else, the school was closed for in-person learning for a significant period during the pandemic.
Having to re-train these kids on how to be students after a two-year hiatus has been a herculean challenge. And many students at Milwaukee Lutheran face added complexities. While most children spent the pandemic playing video games and hanging around their homes, most of our students at Milwaukee Lutheran had jobs and were considered “essential workers.”
This caused them to prioritize their labor over their education. They already got a sense of what work-life will be like when they graduate and now we are asking them to catch up and focus on finishing high school. This is not an easy request.
Other students of ours cared for younger siblings, as their parents were considered essential workers. Low-income students faced other challenges that made remote learning difficult. Technology challenges were widespread, as not every student had a computer or internet services to complete work. Students who only have the opportunity to eat at school missed meals, which also damaged their academic performance.
All of these issues lead to many students falling behind and now having to retake prerequisite classes to graduate on time. Now, these classes are packed to the gills with students who are struggling to focus. In short, it’s a disaster.
Teacher Retention Matters
These days when I walk through the halls of my school I can see the look of burnout and low morale on many teachers’ faces. This is not an attempt at martyrdom or to cast all teachers as heroes. But, having been a litigating attorney for over 20 years, I can attest that working all day with several hundred teenage personalities who have been untethered from any sense of normalcy for two years is a grind unlike any other.
It’s time to figure out how to retain teachers before they leave the profession. Certainly, summer vacation should be a good reminder of the “perks of the job.” But even then there are bound to be many more kids in summer school this year also due to the pandemic.
Perhaps private schools could offer teachers sign-on bonuses for signing a three-year contract like schools in Billings, Montana did. Other schools have looked to relieve teachers’ stress by focusing on support for student behavioral issues. Missoula, Montana hired 12 additional staff members to monitor student behavior and mental health. Certainly, that isn’t possible for every school system, but some schools are getting creative like changing schedules so that the morning starts with a chance for students to focus on deep breathing and getting off on the right foot.
As for attracting new teachers, Tennessee has done well with its “Grow Your Own” teacher program. The state is using $6.5 million to build relationships between 14 education preparation providers (EPPs) and 63 school districts to promote innovative, no-cost pathways to teaching and to strengthen the teacher pipeline. Wisconsin and other states would do well to give a program like this a try.
Lowering state-licensing requirements would allow more teachers to enter the profession in the first place. A September study from WILL shows that 20 percent of graduates from education preparation programs do not become licensed. The process is long and arduous, and research shows that licensure does not improve teacher quality. Schools that currently only hire licensed teachers should consider removing that barrier, and so should state lawmakers.
While I do not have a master’s degree in education and have never been “licensed” so to speak, I succeed at conveying the free market principles in the classroom. I learned on the job. I was coached by good teachers and formed while I was already in the profession. More schools need to be allowed to take a chance on a teacher like me.
As we continue to climb out of the woods following lockdowns, schools need to think about how to attract and retain teachers. Perhaps now more than ever, the state of American education depends on it.