School districts have begun to invite motivational speakers for their convocation ceremonies at the beginning of the school year. In the past, these speeches were given by actual educators, but today they are usually delivered by well-paid self-help gurus, positive psychologists, and corporate pep consultants who tell demoralized teachers to turn their frowns upside down and fake it till they make it.
When these speeches were new, they were a nice change of pace for teachers. After being inundated with talks on testing data, SMART goals, and other corporate cliches, most of us welcomed the happy talk that would take the edge off of our work. I will even admit to adopting some of the speakers’ strategies to reduce stress, like taking a walk in the morning and writing thank you emails to people. As for smiling at all times, maintaining a daily gratitude journal, meditating during my conference period, and aggressively greeting people in the hallways, I have some progress to make.
However, when school districts—both private and public—are in the midst of a serious teacher shortage, this kind of messaging becomes counterproductive and vaguely insulting. Schools are hiring uncertified people with no teaching experience to teach large classes. Besides trying to compensate for this educational deficit with pep talks, districts will require these new hires to attend extra days of “training” conducted by out-of-touch educrats who go over convoluted procedures, curriculum documents, and various instructional gimmicks that will ostensibly prepare them for the classroom. Each day of this largely worthless training is one less day that a new teacher desperately needs to set up his classes.
When the kids walk through the door, I predict that things will get ugly for these new teachers. At best, they will survive these first few weeks by clinging to their more seasoned colleagues; at worst, they may throw up their hands and quit altogether. Either way, it’s safe to assume that their students will not exactly receive the best instruction. In most cases, they will be kept busy, since the main priorities for an unprepared, inexperienced teacher are to establish his authority and minimize disruptions. Challenging the students and moving ahead with actual material will have to come later—if it comes at all.
Such is the case for the new teachers. For experienced teachers, the convocation speeches and the in-service weeks are also frustrating time-wasters. Along with having to sit through some of the same superfluous trainings as the newbies, they are also forced to meet with various committees to “collaborate,” “set norms,” and review district policies and directives—very little of which has any bearing on a teacher’s day-to-day work. Increasingly, these experienced teachers are voluntold to give all their materials to the new teachers and help coach them.
To top it off, for all their pain and frustration, they have to listen to a speech that tells them to be happy. Meanwhile, life has become more expensive, students have become worse, teaching has become more scripted and soulless, and salaries have stagnated. Evidently, district leaders think that a dose of positivity and more useless meetings will fix the teacher shortage and turn around the fortunes of their schools.
In my humble capacity as a high school English teacher, I’d like to recommend a different (even radical) approach. Instead of applying ever more managerial non-solutions to a serious situation, why don’t we consider paying teachers more, rewarding seniority, and cutting out all the bureaucratic excess to fund it? This would not only give people a reason to become teachers but would also give them a reason not to quit.
Once upon a time, teachers unions used to fight for this kind of thing. They provided leverage for teachers to negotiate for better pay, better working conditions, and more respect. Somewhere along the way, they decided to change course and start fighting for school closures, more woke indoctrination, job security for derelict teachers, and funding political campaigns. Now, blue states with teacher unions have dysfunctional public schools run by corrupt administrators who supervise a staff of unhinged activists and incompetent nincompoops.
In red states without teachers unions, as well as in most parochial schools, the problem is a bit different. Many schools are top-heavy, with too many administrators trying to supervise an increasingly demoralized and inexperienced group of teachers. To complicate matters further, student populations are growing as families flee blue states. For teachers, this means more grading, more classroom management, more duties, more paperwork, and more meetings. In other words, they are less equipped to do more work, and they’re not even given any kind of pay raise. Instead, they’re given more data coaches, technology specialists, and district learning facilitators to “make their jobs easier.”
Given this predicament, there might be a potential solution in school choice—but it must be done right. As Daniel Buck writes in Law & Liberty, simply doling out vouchers and letting the pieces fall where they may will likely result in high teacher turnover, fluctuating enrollment, at-risk students being neglected, and generally worse instruction. Rather, a successful school choice program would need to prioritize teacher quality, stable schools, and educational rigor. Otherwise, it will degenerate into a race to the bottom that rewards schools for being cheap, fudging numbers, and offering something slightly better than the competition.
For the time being, no one should ignore the pressures that schools now face. Each campus has its own specific challenges, precluding any one-size-fits-all solution that both conservatives (school choice!) and progressives (more funding!) like to push. In such cases, it’s best to trust the seasoned professionals and give them the honor and compensation commensurate with the important work that they do, as is done with doctors or lawyers. In the long run, this would involve reforming public education with an eye to rewarding good teaching. In the short run, educational leaders could cut the motivational speakers and the endless meetings—just let teachers do their jobs.
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