Expert opinion

We must better support our teaching force

by Richard Long

Changing the public's opinion about whether teacher is a desirable career requires action by all of us.

We should be worried.

While report after report has declared that school improvement is hinged on the teacher, we now have proof that we need to do more to focus on the teachers we have and the future pipeline of teachers. But we also see that our public school teachers have earned the trust and support of the vast majority of parents and Americans.

The PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools provides us with critical and overwhelming data. Some of it isn’t surprising: Most Americans know teachers are underpaid, and most have a soft spot of respect for those who are teachers. Yet, we also learn, most parents would discourage their own children from joining the ranks of teachers.

Some of the most significant findings include: 66% of Americans say salaries are too low; 27% say they are about right, and 6% say they are too high. Those numbers do not shift significantly once the pollster mentions that the average national starting salary for a teacher is about $39,000 annually. In a finding described as “overwhelming,” 73% of survey participants — and 78% of parents with school-aged children — would support a teachers’ strike for higher salaries.

Here is the finding that is most concerning for the teaching field: For the first time since the question has been asked, periodically, since 1969, a majority of parents (54%) said they would not support their children becoming public school teachers. This does not bode well for the future of the profession, which needs thousands of candidates to replace those who are leaving the field, sometimes after only a short stint.

Learning to teach takes time and support, through school leadership, peers, and formal professional development opportunities. During my own short stint as a teacher, early in my career, I saw some really good teachers who knew how to balance the individual needs of children with the demands of needing to help them learn. I found it was very difficult to learn and replicate and, moreover, research shows that it takes about five years, with a good solid base in teacher education and regular support, to become a strong teacher.

Supporting future teachers

So what should we be worried about? Several things. To begin, these data are now telling us that parents are not encouraging (and supporting?) their children when they say they want to become teachers. This also means that all of those programs that are trying to encourage students in high school and even earlier to think about becoming teachers and principals actually need an outreach effort to parents and the public as well. The survey also asked parents an open-ended question: “Why not?” The slew of negative comments ranged from bad pay to out-of-control discipline.

On the plus side of the public’s view is that teachers should be paid more and are supportive of their actions in taking action. This, too, is important, because it means the public understands that action needs to be taken and that there is a fundamental unfairness about the current situation.

Yet, this isn’t the only dimension of the problem of teachers and education. The Learning First Alliance’s publication, the Elements of Success, reports that the entire K-12 education community sees having strong, supported teaching force and staff as one of the six critical elements in successful schools. Furthermore, in an exploration of equity, a group from the policy community reviewing those elements stated that the fastest way to ensure some of the other elements, notably equity of opportunity and outcomes in our schools, was to build a stronger, supported teaching force and staff.

It makes that big a difference.

So what should we do? Clearly, sitting by and waiting for teachers to take job actions to make sure that they can take care of their own families and live in the communities they serve is not the best way forward. We can, however, change how we support teachers and principals:

  • Email your neighborhood school, just to tell them thank you.
  • Ask colleagues at work if they would help with a school activity.
  • Think about mentoring a student or teacher with a summer job.
  • Watch your local television station when they televise a school board meeting.
  • Ask your elected representative how they are increasing the number of people who want to be teachers.
  • Ask the same question: Are we supporting our teachers with the counselors they need to help the kids who need help of those in elected office?

We can all get involved and make a difference. But starting small, the PDK data are telling us that the public, that’s all of us, supports ensuring that teachers get a fair shake. We also know that we need more teachers and to have more teachers we need to support them. This can happen one person at a time.

Richard Long

Richard M. Long is executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of leading education organizations that together represent more than 10 million educators, parents and local policy makers dedicated to improving student learning in America's public schools. The Learning First Alliances shares examples of success, encourage collaboration at every level and work toward the continual and long-term improvement of public education based on solid research.

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