What would a respectful discussion about the future of the teaching profession look like?

The teachers I know well are working their butts off.  And so are many of their colleagues.

If we are going to have the conversation we need to have about the future of the teaching profession, we all need to agree that many teachers are incredibly skilled and working exceedingly hard.

The job that the teachers I know best are trying to do is impressively complex.  They must have a high level of expertise in whatever subject(s) they are teaching.  The teachers I know best understand physics, chemistry and calculus at a level that the vast majority of Florida’s population – including most of the teaching profession’s loudest critics – should find intimidating.

But that’s the easy part.

These teachers know a great deal about what each student is thinking in physics/chemistry/calculus class – both because they understand the research on learning and because of the intense personal experiences they have had with hundreds of other students in their classrooms.

And they know teenagers.  A parent’s work is intense, but a parent really only has to deeply understand her or his own teenagers – a daunting enough task.

A teacher has to deeply understand everybody’s teenagers – and somehow engineer the group dynamics of all those chaotic young minds to arrange for the nearly magical synergy of complex social interactions that drives the deepest learning.  When some of those teenagers come from homes where it’s not clear where the next meal is coming from, that engineering task becomes much more difficult.

Now here’s the problem:  We don’t have enough of the amazingly skilled educators who can do this nearly magical work – particularly in math and science subjects – so that every student can be part of their classes.  How can we fix that?

I will start by saying what will not fix it.

We cannot fix it by whining that teachers only work seven hours per day and 190 days per year and therefore do not deserve to be paid salaries that would allow them to start families.

We cannot fix it by repeating the flawed argument that teachers don’t enter the profession for the money and that therefore addressing salary issues will have no effect on teacher supply.

Both of these arguments rely on fallacies.  The teachers I know are working much more than seven hours per day.  And as anyone who knows a little elementary economics knows, supply depends on the market price.

But from there it gets a little tougher.  The physics and calculus skills possessed by the teachers I know best make them more valuable in the general economy outside of the schools than, say, physical education teachers.  Yet they are paid the same salaries in almost every public school system.  In fact, the physical education teachers often have access to salary supplements through coaching assignments that math and science teachers can’t access.

Should we pay math and science teachers more than physical education teachers?  There are math and science teachers for whom I have tremendous respect who would say no.  A public school is a high pressure environment in which the social cohesiveness of the teaching corps is an important asset.  These teachers tell me that paying math and science teachers more than other teachers would seriously damage the relationships among teachers that are so important to maintaining the best possible learning environment for students.

These teachers might argue that the solution to the shortage of math and science teachers is to raise the minimum salary for all teachers in Florida – regardless of subject area – to something like $50,000 per year (as proposed in SB 586).  But that is simply not going to happen in a Republican-dominated state government.  It’s not obvious it would happen if the government were dominated by Democrats, either.  So saying that we should do nothing about teacher salaries unless the same thing is done for all teachers is simply concluding that providing more (or all) students with access to highly qualified math and science teachers is not important enough to disrupt the present social structure of the teaching profession.  It’s a statement of priorities by the teacher corps.

Of course money is only one issue in attracting math and science experts into the high school teaching profession.  A recent report led by the American Physical Society on the future of high school teaching makes that clear.

The only thing that is obvious is that addressing the supply of high school math and science teachers is a complex problem that will require a difficult and respectful dialogue.  That dialogue will almost certainly have to take place at the district level, since there seems to be no interest in the issue at the state level.

Shooting mean-spirited and intellectually lazy insults at teachers isn’t going to accomplish anything.


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