Would you counsel a young person you cared about to choose a career in education?
These days, most of us wouldn’t. The systemic issues in education are becoming too massive to continue ignoring. Burned-out teachers, embattled administrators, overburdened counselors and support staff stretched to the breaking point: it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s catching up with us.
The problem is not just current teachers exiting the field. It’s that there are fewer people entering the profession to replace them.
“Current teachers are now unlikely to encourage young people to enter a profession that is as challenging as teaching has become,” says Jay Schroder, a veteran teacher and author of Teach From Your Best Self. “And, it’s not only teachers who are discouraging the young people they care about from becoming teachers. A 2022 nationally representative survey found that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans would encourage a young person to become a K-12 teacher.”
The profession is too well-known for its tremendous difficulties and often relatively low pay—and it won’t be long before no one wants to enter the education field anymore. Last year Harvard dropped its undergrad teaching program due to declining enrollment—just one of many such closures which have accelerated since 2020.
None of this is to minimize how our best administrators, teachers, counselors and classified staff are showing up every day for kids. I see extraordinary professionals doing great work every day despite extremely challenging conditions. But just because some educators are able to accomplish heroic things amid adversity doesn’t mean we should allow the adversity to keep getting worse.
This epic crisis in education has taken time to build, and in some places it may still be easy to pretend it’s not that bad. But someday soon it will reach a tipping point where we can no longer close our eyes to the gutting of American education. We don’t have enough teachers as it is, more educators call it quits every day and teaching programs around the country are closing down because there just aren’t enough people enrolling in them.
We have to ask ourselves: What will the world look like when all the teachers have gone?
Education can be a toxic place to work
I recently contended that in many institutions, education has become a toxic workplace. In education, the toxicity is primarily a result of overwork, under-appreciation, increasing expectations with decreasing resources, unrelenting stress, and (perhaps least intuitive) a lack of meaningful career growth opportunities. Toxicity means you can’t win, no matter how hard you try.
None of us want a young person we care about to enter a career where they’re set up to fail. So why is anyone still signing up for this job?
People usually enter the education field because they want to make a difference in the world. They want to influence the next generation in a positive direction, to meet these kids where they’re at and open the doors of learning to them. They want to inspire students the way they were inspired.
They know teaching is hard, they’ve heard the statistics, but they still want to pursue their dream. So they do it. They go to school, work hard and get their education degree. They do the student teaching and perhaps relocate to take a job. And they finally get into the classroom, full of idealism and hope. They’ve been taught how everything should go—and then it doesn’t go that way. They’re thrust into a toxic, lose-lose situation, and it’s little wonder that many get out as quickly as they can. Education is not immune to being a toxic workplace.
The pay: let’s go there
The biggest reason Schroder sees for the declining numbers of fledgling teachers is the low pay. So let’s go there. “In 2022, teachers made on average 26.4% less than other similarly educated professionals,” he says. “Over the past few decades, this pay penalty has been increasing. In 1996, it was only 6.1%. When I started as a teacher in 1999, the marginally lower pay was partially offset by good insurance and benefits. However, in the past two decades, the benefit packages have become much less generous.”
Schroder contends that the low pay, combined with high stress and a strong sense of disrespect from some outspoken sections of society, make the job of teaching unattractive to many college graduates. “If this were just a PR problem, it would be easier to solve,” he says. “The truth is that the pay is low and the stress is high.”
The irony is that a dwindling pool of qualified education workers means higher wages. Scarcity drives demand. When the ranks of teachers have been decimated, then we’ll finally pay them more.
I believe we need to do more than remove the reasons not to enter the education field. We need to give young people positive reasons to become an education professional. This starts with four realizations we must all experience about the nature of this work.
1. Educators can’t do everything
As more teachers quit, those left behind are loaded with extra responsibilities—increasing their chances of burnout and eventual resignation. I call this vicious cycle “killing the survivors.” I don’t have all the answers to fix this, but we must acknowledge that this is a problem and work to find solutions.
“A teacher’s time, energy, and attention are finite,” says Schroder. “By taking things off teachers’ plates that aren’t forwarding student learning, we leave them with the mental bandwidth they need to bring their best to their students.”
2. Educator stress must be a factor in policy decisions
I can’t think of a time when education policy was crafted primarily with teachers in mind. Most of the time, educational policy is built around students and what they need to be successful—usually resulting in more burdens placed on their teachers to make it happen. Unfortunately, this misses the fact that students can’t succeed when their teachers are struggling.
“We need to lower teacher stress and take teacher well-being into account when making national, state, and school district policy decisions,” affirms Schroder. “In other words, we need to ask with each new mandate, ‘How will implementing this policy affect the stress level and overall well-being of our teachers?’”
3. Educators are worth paying well
As mentioned earlier, low pay isn’t the only reason education is an unattractive career choice—but it’s certainly a big one. And it’s about more than the money: teachers feel that their work is not valued by society at large.
“Teacher pay is a function of how much society values its teachers. There really isn’t a way around this gut-punch honest truth that teachers feel, both emotionally and economically,” says Schroder. “America is the richest nation on earth and it’s really a question of priorities—is education, and the people who have dedicated themselves to educating our youth, something we value as Americans?”
4. Healthy, resilient teachers positively impact student performance
Schroder points to a study involving 1,102 German elementary school students, designed to explore the association between teacher well-being and student mathematics achievement. “The study found that teachers’ emotional exhaustion correlated with significantly lower student mathematics achievement,” he says. “An early systematic review of studies exploring the consequences of teacher burnout on students confirms the correlation.”
If we want students to succeed, we must create conditions where teachers can succeed. These four realizations are critical if we’re going to make the education profession once more an inviting career opportunity.
Not too big to fail
In the business world, companies with toxic workplaces ultimately fail if they don’t take drastic steps to turn things around. But it’s students—and ultimately all of us—who will bear the cost when our education system is toxic. It’s too big to fail, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. It can fail our students, teachers, administrators, counselors, communities and ultimately all of us every day.
Supporting teachers in meaningful ways is not only good for teachers, says Schroder—it also maximizes the chances that their students will have a positive experience at school. “This makes them more likely to enroll in postsecondary education themselves, and be more likely to consider teaching as a potential career.” Solving the education staffing crisis means getting more people into the profession. And to do that, we must support the ones we already have.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com on January 3, 2024. Read here.