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Thompson: Why Teachers (& Bees) Are Disappearing

The explanation of why bees are disappearing is complex. The question why teachers are leaving the profession is not. 

Teaching is a tough job, especially in the inner city. But, especially in high-challenge classrooms, it would be hard to find a more wonderful career. If teaching in urban schools is the calling for you, only a fiasco as bad as the contemporary school reform movement could drive the joy out the job.

The latest discussion about the disappearance of teachers was prompted by the New York Times Motoko Rich. Rich, in Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional), explains that California has to fill 21,500 teaching slots, and the state is issuing fewer than 15,000 new teaching credentials a year. She also reported on efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; Oklahoma City; and Providence, R.I. to staff their classrooms. NPR's Diane Rehm adds that enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the U.S. fell by around 30% between 2010 and 2014.

I can't imagine what teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg feel when recalling their district's past integration efforts, and the loss of the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a real civil rights movement - where school desegregation promised kids and adults such rewarding and life-changing opportunities. Seeing their system move from a pioneer in social justice to being a showcase for "reform" must have been devastating.

But, I can comment on Oklahoma City where recruiters have traveled to Puerto Rico and Spain to fill classrooms. When I entered the inner city neighborhood school classroom in 1993, my John Marshall High School had more great teachers than I could have imagined. I had never encountered such teaching excellence. The faculty had stuck out the violence of 1970's bussing and the 1980's crack and gangs epidemic. But, soon, the reform mantra would be that these awesome educators' "low expectations" and their "excuses" were to blame for the low performance of high-challenge students.  So, teachers were told to all "get on the same page" in teaching the same tested material at the same rate, or get out of the inner city.  

Our school went through bouts of dysfunction when violence and disruptive behavior spun out of control, and we had funerals for far too many students, but we also produced an astounding amount of academic, artistic, musical, and athletic excellence.  It was test-driven, competition-driven reform, not the failures of our school's educators and students, that eventually transformed us into the lowest-performing high school in the state.   

It was not just NCLB and Arne Duncan's accountability-driven reforms that sucked the oxygen out of our school improvement efforts and drove out our best teachers. Top-down reform robbed us of our professional autonomy. Eventually, those of us who stood and fought for our kids' right to engaging instruction found ourselves losing battle after battle and most tearfully left for easier schools where they had more freedom to teach in a holistic manner. 

As these national stories bring the exodus of teachers into the political consciousness of non-educators, I would make one point that places the disappearance of teachers in a historical context.   

Back in the 1960s, when I was in school, teachers debated whether they should “teach the student” or “teach the subject.” It would have never occurred to educators or students of my generation that there would be one right answer to that question. My favorite teachers knew their students and taught according to each one’s strengths. They took into account the unique configuration of each classroom, never seeing the classes as static images of each other. This was the essence of the “teach the student” approach, meaning that educators should focus first on the individual’s talents and interests.

But with the No Child Left Behind era of the early 2000s, the pendulum swung to “teaching the subject,” concentrating primarily on the material that should be mastered and assessed. As school systems stressed the instruction of the same subject matter, in the same way, for all students, the “teach the student” approach was dismissed as virtual heresy. Acknowledging that students, class groups, and district ecosystems varied greatly according to social dynamics and economic resources was viewed as excuse making for why some students and schools succeeded and others failed.

We cannot have an educational culture that respects the individuality of students and allows their classes to develop their own character without restoring much of the professional autonomy of teachers that has been lost to accountability-driven reform. As Stanford University’s Larry Cuban explained, top-down reformers have long made recurring efforts to curtail the professional autonomy of teachers in order to impose standardization of classroom instruction. Cuban described this micromanaging as “teacher bashing” or “blaming teachers for resisting changes.” School reformers have repeatedly attacked the professional autonomy of teachers, basically asking, “Why can’t teachers simply change their shoes, pull up their socks, and get on with the changes for God’s sake?”

Historically, teachers have pushed back and quietly reasserted a measure of control of their classrooms. The result is a system of “constrained autonomy” or a shifting balance of power between classroom teachers and those who seek to supervise us. And, I believe history will repeat itself. The childhood experiences of today's teacher candidates may have been constrained by the culture of teach-to-the-test, but at some point they will fight back and refuse to impose this pedagogy on the next generation.

When students and teachers come together in a classroom, a bond forms. Corporate reforms may insist that educators treat children as mere recipients of a testable curriculum, but at some point we will rebel. As adults and kids develop loving personal relationships, a desire to subvert the top-mandates will always emerge and reemerge. When a critical mass of teachers stand up and teach their students, we will see a teacher version of the grassroots Opt Out movement, and educators will join our students and their families in protest.  Rather than leave the profession, more teachers will stand and fight.  I doubt the next generation of teachers will completely liberate their classrooms from teach-the-subject mandates, but I bet they will carve out enough autonomy to be able to once again commit to a loving teach-the-student ethos.-JT(@drjohnthompson)   

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