By Sarah Adamo
Teachers are among America’s heroes, but as a myriad of media outlets lament, these dedicated public servants are now on the endangered species list. New Jersey lawmakers, among many others, have called America’s growing teacher shortage a crisis.
This trend toward fewer people wanting to become teachers predates the pandemic by at least a decade and does not promise an easy resolution. In fact, to attribute this shortage solely to the pandemic is to dismiss the long-standing concerns of teachers who have dedicated their lives to educating generations of leaders and citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated rather than initialized the sharp reduction in the number of students interested in joining the profession.
This crisis is symptomatic of a routine devaluation of the teaching profession, a chronic illness often overlooked but felt at some point in the career of any educator. As an aspiring educator myself, I have sometimes been made to feel that this essential position in our society is not what I know it is in my heart. When I tell others that I want to be a teacher, there is perhaps no more disheartening comment than “You are too smart to be a teacher”.
What does this answer suggest about the value our friends and neighbors place on a career charged with the noble task of inspiring and empowering students, regardless of their background and the adversities they may face? Shouldn’t they be smart those who are responsible for transmitting the values of inclusion and self-efficacy, those who must cultivate critical thinking among today’s young people and those who help select what our children are exposed during their most formative years? To suggest such a thing is not only dangerous but humiliating for all educators who bring so much passion and wisdom to the classroom.
There are many other disincentives to entering the teaching profession, such as expensive assessments like the edTPA or the knowledge that weekly salaries for public school teachers continue to be lower than comparable worker earnings, even taking into account the greater wage disparity for women overall. Sylvia A. Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel pointed this out in an Economic Policy Institute report titled “The Teacher Pay Gap Is Wider Than Ever” long before the pandemic.
Regardless of these additional variables, feelings of being undervalued in this profession alone can play havoc, deterring potential teachers from entering this important career. According to a 2019 article by Lauren Camera titled “International Survey: US Teachers are Overworked, Feel Underappreciated”, American educators work longer than their counterparts abroad but widely share the feeling that society does not appreciate their efforts.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Education Statistics’ Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), also in 2019, found that job satisfaction remained high among American teachers, with 90% of participants saying they satisfaction. But the study also found that only 36% of participants believe their company values what they do for a living. This justifies the concern. Future educators, who have not yet experienced the joys and sense of purpose that come with teaching, will decide that what society deems unworthy of recognition is not for them.
That’s why, as NJEA Preservice Secretary and proud aspiring educator, I hope to let students like me know that their skills will be put to good use. I want them to realize that joining this union ensures that future and current educators won’t have to martyr themselves just to put food on the table for our own families or earn the respect befitting our work. I want budding educators to know deeply that, in the words of Henry Adams, their impact as a teacher transcends the present and “affects eternity: [one] can never tell where [one’s] the influence stops.
Sarah Adamo is secretary of NJEA Preservice and a student at the College of New Jersey.