Teacher Shortages: Sure, It's the Economy -- but Leadership Plays a Role

After years of hearing about teacher layoffs we are now once again hearing about teacher shortages.

It shouldn't be a surprise that some districts around the country are reporting trouble hiring teachers as the country recovers from the Great Recession of 2008. It's always easiest to hire and retain teachers in difficult economic times. (My mother still talks about the scientists, writers, artists, and business people who taught in her Brooklyn high school because they had lost their jobs in the Great Depression.)

It will take a while before we will be able to know whether the new teacher shortages being reported are really widespread or just regional, and whether they are due primarily to student enrollment increases, retirements or young teachers leaving.

All of which was in my head when I stumbled across an email I got a while back from a teacher who left her high-poverty school to work at an education nonprofit before heading back to grad school. I had talked with her at a party, and she had shared how agonizing the decision to leave the classroom had been. She was committed to the kids she taught -- primarily African American and mostly from low-income families -- and had always wanted to be a teacher. She wasn't someone who thought of teaching as a way station to a corporate career.

And yet she left after her husband wrote her a letter with all the reasons she should leave a job that left her not just exhausted but depressed and crying night after night.

She shared his letter with me, and some of the reasons he gave her are illustrative of a larger problem, as I think you'll see:

Because of the reactive leadership, the impossible demands, and the lack of support, you're burnt out, you don't enjoy your job, and it seems it's only going to get worse.

The administration does not show concern for struggling students; there are no school-wide, targeted strategies for them outside the special ed department or any full-fledged initiatives. Instead, you've sensed an attitude, from day one, that only certain students should attend. Teachers are generating programs and ideas, but they can only succeed with the backing and support of the leadership, which isn't happening.

Your friends and family have confirmed over and over again that your concerns about your school are not only valid, but not worth enduring. In fact, not a single person has encouraged you to "just suck it up and stick it out!" As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that this may be the single weightiest piece of evidence: that all of the believers who are in your life don't think you should stay.

In other words, she didn't leave teaching because she was fleeing the kids -- the kids were the reason she was in the school in the first place.

She was leaving because the school's leadership did not organize the work in such a way that she could succeed. The principal and other administrators had low expectations for many of the schools' students and did little to ensure that students were able to meet standards or to help teachers improve instruction.

All of which is why when we think about improving schools, one of the most profound changes we could make is to ensure that school leaders understand how to organize schools in such a way that teachers -- and thus students -- can be successful.