These strikes, rooted in persistent problems teachers face, run deeper than the need for a mere pay increase. Poor benefits, minimal support and stifled career pathways are having profound consequences on the occupation. The teachers picketing are the ones who have lasted, hanging on to a career many of their peers have fled altogether.
I started my career at PriceWaterhouseCoopers before making a radical transition to teach in an elementary classroom in Baltimore. I believed that education was a doorway out of poverty, and having worked at a systems level in social services, I wanted to understand from the classroom level how to help school systems.
Compared to the corporate sector, the lack of support I encountered in education was glaring. At Price Waterhouse, I had immediate online access to information about the best practices and materials to support the problems of any client at my fingertips. When I started teaching, I didn’t even have a science curriculum!
At Price Waterhouse, someone prepared my materials or made copies for me. As a teacher, I didn’t have access to a working copy machine the majority of the time.
Due to a lack of interesting leadership roles, status and opportunities to learn with colleagues, I decided to leave the classroom after two years, and I’m not alone.
Why Teachers Are Leaving
In a phenomenon known as the “leaky bucket,” educators choosing to abandon the classroom has become so prevalent that a 2017 study found that 90 percent of vacant teaching positions are formed by teachers leaving the profession. To make matters worse, the schools that have the most teachers leaving are high-needs, which generally teach minorities and those below the poverty line. Children who are in need of quality education the most are subjected to a revolving door of educators.
Hundreds of thousands of teachers leave the profession each year. Over the past five years, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen nearly 35 percent—a decrease of nearly 240,000 teachers in all. Teacher shortages are a reality in every state, particularly in high-needs, high-poverty areas. States like Arizona have such a shortage, they have begun importing teachers from the developing world. Though a limited phenomenon, it elucidates the reality of the teacher labor market.
As seen in the recent teacher strikes, salary is a point of contention. Teachers’ salaries reflect the hours they are contracted to work, not the hours they actually work. In numbers, the national average starting salary is $38,617. Divided by days in a school year, by hours actually worked, that’s an average of $21.45—only twice the amount of minimum wage. These numbers don’t factor cost of benefits that are taken out of monthly wages.
This may also explain why teachers are leaving high-needs schools the most, as teachers in those schools were shown to be paid approximately $2,500 less per year. Teachers that work in districts with a maximum salary of more than $72,000 are 31 percent less likely to leave their positions.
According to research, the teachers that have the highest chance of leaving their schools are the ones that report a lack of administrative support. Administrators can set up time, resources and structures that save teachers time and allow teachers to work effectively together in empowered ways. They can also set up school wide structures that prevent unnecessary problems that make teaching more challenging than it already is.
How to Recruit and Retain Millennial Educators
This is a call for a renascent interest in the teaching profession. More teacher development, opportunities to engage teachers and recognition of leadership skills with financial incentives are imperative to securing a consistent, valued teacher workforce.
When 87 percent of millennials say professional development is important and 59 percent say opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important when applying for a job, it is high time teachers are provided development opportunities and a clear career ladder.
Too often in the education profession, the first year of the job is the same as the 10th. Schools need to create performance-based pathways that allow teachers to master skills and move into leadership roles.
Enter microcredentials, a form of professional development that diverts from traditional seat time and workshops. Microcredentials are a way to recognize skills teachers have mastered, like classroom management or analyzing student data.
Teaching Matters, a nonprofit that aids high-needs schools in developing and retaining quality educators, has issued over 250 microcredentials over the last four months and has issued over 1,700 in all. This strategy provides educators the opportunity to make more money, earn deserved recognition for achievement and growth and apply for leadership opportunities.
An established career trajectory alters the number of years millennials stay in jobs—of those who left employers, 93 percent moved on to change roles. Through our microcredentialing process, there has been a 65 percent increase in teacher leadership positions in New York City’s highest-needs schools. Around 17 percent of US teachers leave the profession entirely within the first five years, but a staggering 92 percent of teachers in leadership positions through Teaching Matters plan to stay in the profession beyond the next five years.
It has taken teacher strikes in six states to bring attention to undervalued educators, showing how grossly misunderstood the state of our nation’s teaching profession is. We need a paradigm shift toward valuing and investing in the profession that draws in and keeps new talent. Enabling career growth, providing support and offering financial incentives are paramount. Our children’s education depends on it.