Would you take a job that paid poorly, required you to work nights and weekends and left you buying supplies out of your own pocket? A job that gives you time off in the summer but over which you are required to renew your certifications (at your own expense), take additional training, and prepare the work plans for the 60-hour work week that will begin anew in the fall?
Most of us would not sign up for a job like that in the business world, but that is what we require from the majority of K-12 school teachers. Not only are the hours long and the pay poor, but it is high pressure. When students don't make the grade, it is often the teachers who take the blame and who get the late night emails from parents, despite the many other factors that can contribute to poor student performance.
In Arizona, more than 1,400 teachers who responded to a 2013 teacher workforce survey said they chose teaching for the joy of the work, because they liked working with children or they wanted to help others. But nearly 30 percent said they were not likely to continue as teachers and 40 percent said they would not recommend the job to others. They cited pay and benefits as a key contributor to job dissatisfaction. To supplement their teaching income, nearly one-third of the teachers said they have an additional paying job. In Arizona, average starting teacher pay is $31,874 a year; nationally it's $36,141 according to the National Education Association.
A 2012 study of McKinsey Global Institute found that the U.S. pays teachers less, on average, than in other developed countries. U.S. high school teachers are paid 72 percent as much as all college graduates in the workforce, while in many other countries teachers are paid 90 percent.
The Arizona teachers also reported feeling undervalued, despite the fact that they are responsible for preparing the next generation of scientists, musicians, nurses, auto technicians and lawyers. But dissatisfied teachers is not just a problem in Arizona. In April, the largest school district in North Carolina reported that 600 of their 9,000 teachers had left since the beginning of the school year, up 41 percent compared to a year ago. A new study published by University of Pennsylvania education and sociology professor Dr. Richard Ingersoll, whose research on teachers and teaching is nationally recognized, reports that 41 percent of new teachers leave teaching within 5 years, and that the number of teachers who quit the occupation after their first year on the job has soared in the past 20 years - from 9.8 to 13.1 percent from 1988 to 2008, a 34 percent increase.
High teacher turnover is bad for students. Some may argue that anyone with enthusiasm, commitment and subject matter knowledge can make a good teacher. But in teaching, like other fields, experience does matter. Research shows that it takes four years or more to become a highly effective teacher, and with so much turnover, what we have today are primarily novices teaching our children. Students who are unfortunate enough to have two or more ineffective teachers in a row are unlikely to ever catch up to their peers.
As we commemorate Teacher Appreciation Week, it's a good time to reflect: if we depend on teachers to develop the future workforce and help turn our children into productive members of society, what can we do about this problem?
The keys to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers are the same as any workforce: they involve investing, rewarding and respecting.
1. Investing: We need to invest in teachers by providing new teachers with strong induction and mentoring programs. With most states adopting higher education standards, teachers need ongoing, no-cost professional development and time during the work day to collaborate on new curriculum and to share teaching practices. Many communities have also established business and education partnerships that help teachers improve their knowledge and teaching strategies in other ways, such as bringing industry experts into classrooms as guest speakers and volunteers or providing teachers with paid summer job experiences in fields their students may enter in the future.
2. Rewarding: We need to reward them by advocating for higher wages that puts them on par with professions requiring comparable education and responsibilities. Countries like Finland, Germany, Sweden and France pay their teachers well and support them, leading to more job satisfaction. Highlighting outstanding teachers with special awards and recognition also provides immeasurable benefits.
3. Respecting: We need to respect them for the work they do every day in the classroom to prepare the future generation to take our place in the world. When teaching is considered a noble and revered profession in the United States, as it is in countries like China and South Korea, then we can attract the best and brightest to be teachers and keep them in the classroom.
We can also ensure strong leadership by stepping up to serve on school boards and by demanding that schools hire qualified superintendents, principals and other school administrators. And then we must support them as they serve our schools.
If our children are our future, then our teachers hold the key to unlocking those futures. Let's appreciate teachers not only this week but all year, by doing a better job of demonstrating that we value them.