Monthly Archives: December 2017

What Counts as Teaching?

I met Dale, his girlfriend Maya, and their new puppy for lunch on Friday.  Dale and I worked together at my previous Title I school in his first year (my last). Within three years, Dale was department chair,  teaching AP Calc BC and AP Stats,  honors pre-calculus, designing his own courses, settling colleague spats. But Dale began his career teaching Algebra I, and even after taking a leadership position, he never hesitated to take on a low-level class to give his colleagues more variety. Given that Dale’s school, like mine, assigns teachers to categories of classes, he could easily have stayed in the stratosphere, but he easily handles tough kids.

Dale had planned to stay at that school forever. I remember one lunch when Maya and I pointed out he might be better moving to a different school, but he was adamant. However,  Maya (who makes a lot more money) has become exhausted and stressed by her commute. They decided to move closer to her job, which is in a much wealthier part of the world. Dale still isn’t thirty, and you don’t get hired into department head positions, particularly not in the wealthy suburban districts near his new place. Dale knew that, knew that  prioritizing location would limit his options, that he’d be unlikely to get the ideal course load he now had. My own school would have taken him in a heartbeat, given him the AP class load he preferred, but he wanted to be close to home.

We knew all this. We’d talked about it last year, when he was looking. When Dale accepted a job, we talked about his schedule: a bunch of algebra I classes and computer science. All freshmen. More money, but not enough more to get excited about. Dale’s a cheery guy and showed no resentment, at most mildly philosophical about the change.

End preamble. Nod to Dale’s awesome relationship priorities.

So we’re talking about Dale’s new job at lunch. He is using the district curriculum that is mapped out by day. He spends no time at all developing his own lesson plans, but since the required curriculum has regular quizzes and tests, he spends far more time grading than he used to. He loves it, though. The students  (mostly white) are capable and interested and far advanced of anything he’d seen at his last school. They do homework. They ask in depth questions, demand deeper understanding.

As he told me all this, Dale was grinning. I knew he was remembering something I told him early on in our acquaintance, when he was a first year and I was a third: “Look, I’m not sure what you call it when people deliver centrally planned lessons to prepared kids, but it sure as hell isn’t teaching. Because if it is, what the hell is it we’re doing?”

“So,” I said now. “Is it teaching?”

“Sure feels like it. But yeah, it’s different. Their questions are amazing. We’re really discussing in-depth math. The kids enjoy it. They aren’t obsessed about grades. I’d rather plan my own lessons, although I can see how I’d get used to just downloading the worksheets for the day. But the kids, they want to know about math. And I get to tell them all about math. What is that, if not teaching?”

Every so often, I can get my head around this notion. When I think of reformers going on and on about the importance of curriculum, how arrogant teachers are to think they can create their own, I realize these are people whose notion of teaching is something like Dale’s classroom. When I read a paper stating that to improve teaching and advance student learning requires weaving together the curriculum that students engage with every day with the professional learning of teachers“, I realize they, too, think that my world is just a slightly more chaotic, lower-level version of Dale’s universe.

But see, it goes beyond curriculum. That’s just my pet peeve. Think about what a PE teacher does every day. A first grade teacher. A high school special ed teacher managing twelve aides and eight severely disabled “students” who have to wear mitts to stop from hurting themselves, who will be attending “school” all year round until they’re twenty one because Congress gets crazy some time. Think about any teacher in a poorly managed inner city school, where chaos reigns. Or what about an ESL teacher who only speaks English, but has eighteen students from Congo, India, Salvador, China, Afghanistan, and three other countries?

What counts as “teaching”?

It’s a few hundred thousand blind men and a camel.

I’ve written various renditions of this point throughout the years. And I know teachers aren’t unique. Lawyers, engineers (if there is such a thing), doctors–all the professions have similar width and breadth.


A surgeon can fix the ailment of a patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who stays mute throughout the trial; but success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student…Unless [the] intended learning takes place, the teacher is understood to have failed.–David Labaree, The Trouble With Ed Schools

Labaree goes on to observe that the aspects of health that require patient cooperation–obesity, smoking, addiction–have extremely low success rates. Doctors have offloaded these responsibilities onto therapists, who aren’t expected to have a fabulous success rates.

But when the country began actively forbidding both students from quitting and teachers from limiting their student population, teachers weren’t allowed to offload their responsibilities onto some lower career ladder occupation, or even lower expectations for success. In fact, governments became ever more quantitative in its demands for educational outcomes.

Don’t bleed too hard for teachers. We mostly ignore the outcome expectations. And it’s pretty good pay for most of us, as well as a great working schedule. But for any number of reasons, the public debate and the absurd expectations is a huge part of the job in my region of Teacher World, and not even a tiny blip on the horizon of Dale’s.

That is, if what we do is called teaching.


Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?–Supply

I will never leave my current position. I won’t ever risk leaving the tenure cocoon until I’m ready to leave teaching. I expect to stay seven more years in this job and then move to another state, where I will try to find get a teaching job but will weep no tears if I don’t.

Why? I’m too old to risk being on the market. Barry Garelick couldn’t find a full-time job, and I believe he still works just part-time with kids at a middle school. I doubt I agree with one in five words the man writes but that’s not why he didn’t find work.  I guess he needs an American version of the program Lucy Kellaway has put together  for fifty somethings in the UK.  But in the US, if you’re highly educated and past 40 but think being a teacher sounds rewarding, network like mad, get an internship job first, and don’t spend a fortune on tuition, is all I can say.

But didn’t I just say there’s a teacher shortage?  Well, sure. But age discrimination is everywhere. And there are other caveats.

Ed schools seem to be producing too many elementary school teachers.   One of the first big pieces I ever wrote referenced a study showing that just 77,000 of the 186,000 teacher class of 2010 took a job teaching, and it’s likely that most of the ones who didn’t were elementary school teachers. The best piece on this teaching shortage, skeptical and thorough (and, alas, 4 years old) is still Stephen Sawchuk’s Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Finds.

Notice Sawchuk points out that the data shows this. Note he also points out that “states flush with elementary teachers can face shortages, particularly in urban and rural areas.” And there are many irregularities. For example, Maryland produced 1000 elementary school teachers and hired 1,100, 723 of them new teachers. But over half of the new teachers came from out of state. Wait, what? As Sawchuk notes, teacher supply is complicated.

Another reality: teaching jobs are vastly different depending on the adjectives describing the schools and the students. Some principals can be picky and selective, rejecting and selecting based on their personal preferences. Other principals are the employer equivalent of  drunken out-of-towners looking for love in the bar at closing time: taking what they can get.

These analogical drunks run schools with the wrong adjectives. The schools or their districts are extremely rural, extremely urban, extremely poor, extremely expensive or, of course, two or more combined.  While charter schools definitely contribute to the increase in teaching populations, I don’t think heavy charter presence leads inevitably to a shortage for that state or district, but that’s a data analysis beyond my scope.

So here’s something I always wonder: when those desperate principals are looking, where are the English teachers, the history teachers, the elementary school teachers who change careers or work as substitutes when they can’t find jobs? Are they applying at the schools with the unattractive adjectives?

Reporters don’t often make this clear. In my case, I wanted to work in high poverty districts, although I never got desperate enough to apply to charters or inner city schools. If I couldn’t nail down employment among the suburban poor, I vowed to  move to North Dakota. My kid’s grown and in another state, so I could pretend it was an adventure. Fortunately, I was able to stick within those parameters and find tenure without relocation. Eventually, I probably would have sought out inner city schools, if I had to.

But that was me, with $50K in loans that I could only write off with a teaching job, loans I had no intention of paying off my own self. Suppose you’re a young credentialed college graduate with only a moderate ambition,  no major loans and a parent to help pay them off. Would you be willing to take that 2 am job in the extreme zones? Or were you just interested in teaching with reasonable kids, reasonable pay, reasonable cost of living and reasonable locale offered up by an attractive employer well before the midnight hour?

Then there are the college educated folks working as adjunct professors or barristas or bus drivers that I wrote about last time. Why aren’t they considering teaching?

Well, there’s this other thing to remember: Teaching is brutally hard for some people.

Many otherwise ordinary people can succeed and thrive in teaching. But the job can also crush a healthy ego as easily as an egg.  Who is going to have an easy time, who is going to struggle and thrive, who’s going to slink away with a mental scar that they often flinch away from? Typically, although not always,  counted among the failed are  many Dewey- and dewy-eyed idealists who envision themselves enrapturing a group of wide-eyed, attentive diamonds in the rough who had never once encountered a teacher who really cared. Then they face reality, often with no mentoring and no support. The results are ugly. Some recover. Some don’t.

I wrote about a breakdown I witnessed with a long term sub, one who’d taught in India and had originally planned to teach here in America.  Every teacher has these anecdotes, I think. If you want to read a book about the breakdown of an inept teacher whose psyche was severely unglued by teaching, I suppose you can suffer through Ed Boland’s Battle for Room 314, a truly revolting book about a terrible person whose choices are inexplicable, not least because he clearly despises his students. Upside: the self-absorbed, condescending little jerk  who thought he’d become a Great Savior, is permanently defeated by his shortcomings and other inabilities and he’ll be cringing from his failures for the rest of his life. Downside: the horrible little man got a book deal out of it, as well as all sorts of positive attention.

Sorry. I didn’t write a whole piece on that book because, well, you can see. Where was I?

College-educated people who are unhappy with their economic lot in life choose under-employment or insecure employment are already dealing with a sense of failure. Maybe they know they aren’t cut out for a job that can wreak psychological devastation, even one with  tremendous job security, enviable union benefits, and fantastic vacation time. Teachers  who abandon the field when they can’t find the job they want could be making the same calculation: why risk  soul-wringing failure when they already feel unwanted?

And so, the disconnect. Teaching seems to be easy, seems to offer a  ready supply of jobs, but  the jobs in classrooms with capable kids and involved parents  are much harder to come by, and hey, maybe  it’s not always so easy.

Sing me no happy talk about charters and choice. Megan McArdle’s mea culpa got some pushback, but the public has made it fairly clear it’s not on board with education reform.  Eventually, everyone will realize that lousy teachers don’t cause low test scores. And as I observed in my last piece, even assuming charters are making it more desirable to teach in low income areas, they’re consuming more teachers and burning through them at a faster rate.

TFA found another way to convince people to enter the field: make it a resume boost, but that story stopped selling, eventually.

There’s one sure way to convince more people to take on teaching pay a whole lot more. Pay so much the salary makes it worth while for people to move to Alaska, teach in Detroit, take a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Salinas for a teaching job in Palo Alto, risk losing tenure, or live in the remote frozen lands of North Dakota.

And none of these measly 20% increases, or $4K signing bonuses. It’s going to take six figures to get reliable sourcing for the schools with unattractive adjectives.

But that makes no sense. (Ha, had you fooled, didn’t I?)

Leave aside the states that need to revisit pay because they are constantly losing teachers to their higher-paying neighbors. Understand that the expensive  districts are paying through the nose already (average teacher salary in the Bay Area is nearly 6 figures as it is).  Understand that 3.5 million people seem to find the existing pay just fine.

Remember, too, that these are government jobs, with government pensions, and our state government pension commitments give responsible people nightmares.  As it is, pensions are a looming threat. Shortages are already leading to higher salaries in many states, and that only makes the commitments even more threatening.

Then there’s the fact that increasing the teacher supply invariably means lowering teacher standards even further–which, of course, I’ve never argued against. But lowering standards while dramatically increasing pay is just adding insult to injury for the taxpayers. And the reformer path to improved teacher quality–threatening teacher pay and benefits, offering merit pay,  reducing job security–only makes the supply problems more severe, as the charter experience shows. That is, of course, what education reformers have never really grasped, and it’s why their efforts have mostly failed.

I prefer reducing demand, preferably without too much of a baby bust. Faithful readers can probably remember when I’ve discussed that before, but everyone else will have to wait for the next post.

PS–I don’t want to make this whole series sound deeper than it is. I don’t have any hard research under wraps. I just wanted to discuss the various lines of thought that others have offered, and respond.

Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?

The Teacher Shortage Myth is typical of the scoffing view that says “How can there be a teacher shortage when the teacher population is increasing at a faster clip than the student population?

We have a teacher shortage.  Debate the breadth and depth as you will. But if teachers were thick on the ground, would principals be so reluctant to give bad reviews to marginal teachers? Would  Race to the Top have failed so satisfactorily if parents and districts alike weren’t worried that their teacher pool would be threatened? Why are California and Nevada and a number of other states bringing in teachers from the Philippines? 

So for the purposes of this article, accept the fact that we’ve got a teacher shortage.

I don’t see why anti-teacher folks make so much hay out of the discrepancy between student and teacher growth. I can think of several reasons why schools would need more teachers despite a stable or even declining student population.  From least to most determinative of obvious explanations:

  1. Since 2002 or so, middle school teachers have had to be credentialed at the more demanding high school standard. Existing teachers were grandfathered in, but as they retire, the newer hires are being drawn from the high school pool. At the same time, education policy in practice now requires all students to take four years of math, although likewise in practice this often means students take four years to pass the required two or three years officially mandated. In any case, there’s been a largely unreported increase in the need for academic subject teachers.
  2. A good chunk of that student growth is in immigrants and non-English speakers. We public schools are required to take all kids of school age the minute they set foot on our soil, regardless of their previous education or English ability. An explosion in immigration keeps the need for ESL teachers growing, and those classes are very small. Our school keeps the equivalent of one full-time hire for about 16 kids.
  3. Similarly, a good chunk of the student growth involved more special education students, another population that has a legal ability to demand small classes.  Special ed students cost, on average, twice that of a regular student (the last we checked, which was 16 years ago). In high school, most of them are eligible for what’s basically a study hall, meaning we pay teachers to do a lot of case management, parent meetings, and run classes of 8-10 kids doing very little most of the time.
  4. The big one, of course, is charter schools. According to Edweek, the public school teacher population grew from 3,385,200 to about 3,800,000 in 4 years, with 218,500 of that group teaching at charters. But what the Edweek reporter doesn’t mention is that those same four years earlier, from the same report, the charter teacher population was just 115,600, or an 89% increase. Public school proper teachers grew to 3,581,500 from 3,269,600, or just 9.5%–a believable increase given the first three points. Of the 400,000 teachers added in 4 years, 25% of them work at charters, teaching just 6% of the population.

    I do not understand why people don’t understand the obvious impact of using public dollars to fund what are basically small private schools–with capped enrollment, no less. We have X students. Educating X students at Y schools requires Z teachers. Educating X students at Y + some number of schools will require Z+ some bigger number of teachers. Full stop.


Leaving demand behind, let’s take a look at supply.

Do not expect, dear reader, a jeremiad about the woeful lack of respect the public has for teachers. The public gives us plenty of respect. If you want a fairly well-thought out, pro-union, pro-teacher case for the teacher shortage, here’s Peter Greene from a couple years ago. I don’t know that I agree with all his reasoning, but he’s thorough and logical and despite the anti-reform rhetoric, reasonably compelling. (Remember that I, too, think reform is useless, but our reasons differ, as do our proposed fixes.)

But I think about this differently. Never mind pay, respect, anti-teaching rhetoric. Take a look at these anecdotes from the last few years, all of which describe very current reality:

Millennials are Screwed:


Why So Many Higher Ed Professors Make So Little


The Problem With Being Just a Teacher


I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I make less than a pet-sitter.


College graduates working as bus drivers, barristas, or waiters. PhDs desperately trying to cobble a living out of college teaching contingent jobs.

I am reliably informed that teaching has a low barrier to entry. We don’t learn anything useful in classes, the argument goes, and there’s no knowledge base to memorize. GPAs are ludicrously low. The credential tests are a bit of a facer, but certainly not for the well-educated folks of the stories above.  There’s job security so tenacious it’s given birth to a dozen laws intended to dislodge it–laws that have, for the most part, failed, in a world that otherwise sees the tie between employer and employee disintegrate. Benefits are disappearing. Increasing numbers of jobs are contingent.

But a millennial with a business degree chose to be a bus driver when he couldn’t get a bank job. Adjuncts are so easily found begging for work that colleges can treat them like disposable diapers.

I’m not offering criticism or suggestion, just describing a choice that shouldn’t make sense, given the public policy discourse about teaching. These aren’t entrepreneurs choosing a career that will reward ambition and excellence, sneering at the “widget” teacher. These are people who, for whatever reason, aren’t succeeding in their post-college career. Whether  teachers are underpaid, disrespected, or undeserving mediocrities ensconced in a sinecure,  non-trivial chunks of people with college degrees are rejecting these secure teaching jobs with more pay and security for widget jobs with less pay, less respect, and no future.


So there you go. We have a teacher shortage. I offered some reasons why the growth in demand for teachers might outstrip the growth in students. I’ve pointed out at least two sources of college educated strugglers that apparently aren’t turning to teaching despite its offering of better pay and more security.

I have no evidence for any of this but then, when did that stop anyone else?

Part 2 coming soon, I think. If not, just consider this mind food and mull it over your own self.

Note: I borrowed the feature image, the one that comes through on Twitter, from here