Flipping the Script: Changing the Narrative About Teaching
Our teaching corps is in trouble. Lots of teachers are heading for the doors, in part because the pandemic has made conditions much harder. Those eligible for retirement are incentivized to go by the 2018 teacher raises, which will boost what they earn in retirement. Graduation numbers in our teaching colleges has fallen from 2,000 a few years ago to about 1350 today. We can make up this shortfall by hiring teachers under alternative or emergency certification, but the data show that university-trained teachers are more likely to stay and make a career in teaching. There’s another, older problem: Our teaching corps isn’t diverse enough to meet all the needs of our students. Combine these factors with all the challenges of technology, pandemic and budgetary woes, and we have a crisis within the larger education crisis. The problem is made worse by the way we talk about education in Oklahoma. This legislative session featured a slew of bills targeting teachers, backed up by unflattering rhetoric about teachers and the work that they do.
In a sense, this crisis is also an opportunity. Our schools are changing very quickly, thanks to technology and new approaches to education. The factory model is outmoded, certainly, but that only underscores the need for caring, competent, empathetic individuals who are knowledgeable in their content areas and can build relationships with students. A new corps of teachers like those prepared by our colleges and universities can use new models to teach critical thinking, social-emotional learning and 21st century skill sets. At the same time, if we adjust incentives and remove barriers to entry, we can recruit a more diverse set of teachers so that students are presented with role models that look like them. This would be a tremendous boost.
I think it’s time we flipped the script and treated the crisis as an opportunity to build a new and strong teaching corps. This means politicians have to stop bashing the profession and public schools to score cheap political points. I’m thinking of the authors of bills that imposed new requirements on civics teachers or accused them of making students feel guilty for their race. We have to stop blaming teachers for the pandemic lockdowns or for public protests. We need a unified effort to celebrate the contributions teachers make in every community in Oklahoma. We need laws that nourish the teaching corps, like paid internships for student teachers, stipends for career educators, and bonuses for teachers that complete the National Board program. If we sent out a positive message from the State Capitol, more young people would embrace their natural ambitions to become teachers in Oklahoma – as they have in every generation.
We need to think of the teaching corps as a precious state resource and a way for idealistic young people to give back to their beloved state. It will take some investment of money, but more importantly, it will take a political rethink. Politicians have to stop viewing our public school system as an example of big government that needs to be disrupted, or as a funding stream that can be diverted through privatization. They have to stop accusing teachers of indoctrinating students. They need to see public education as the best way to prepare for the future, and to lay the foundations for economic growth. And they have to value our teachers and give them the tools to make every classroom successful.
If talk is cheap, then changing the way we talk about teachers and public schools may be one of the greatest bargains we can make.