Want to address the teacher shortage? Listen to teachers.

The shortage of teachers is real and it is catastrophic. We knew this had been happening for years with teachers acting like canaries in the coal mine, warning the public that there would be a serious shortage of teachers.

The way education currently works is unsustainable at best. We must act quickly and decisively to correct course and save a public good from which everyone, even people without children, benefits. We are all better off with an educated population that is able to think critically. So what can we do?

As a student, when I told people I was going to be a teacher, most of my peers scoffed and asked “Why?” That was almost 20 years ago, so the decline in people wanting to be educators started long before COVID.

Most of my peers were looking for lucrative careers and could support a family. Salary is certainly a determining factor for many people who decide not to go to school as a career path. Teachers are paid about 23.5% less than college graduates with comparable credentials. After spending tens of thousands of dollars to earn a teaching degree, teachers typically earn less than someone elected to serve on the Louisville Metro Board, which is a part-time job. Many end up working second or even third jobs just to make ends meet between earning less than their comparable peers and paying off high student loans.

Even before teachers enter the real job market, they are expected to pay for the privilege of working a full working week through teaching students. Teaching students represents the same hours and workload as a certified teacher with evening classes and homework thrown into the mix. While other professions offer paid internships and apprenticeships, teachers pay thousands of dollars to be able to prove their skills through real-world work experience. It is high time to correct this error and compensate student teachers for their time and work.

Our mentoring programs are in dire need of an overhaul. When we lost the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP) years ago, nothing came to replace what was once a good program that supported teachers and matched them with mentors. KTIP was far from perfect. Instead, our mentoring programs need to be phased to slowly release educators to the full workload. Teachers should participate in a multi-year mentorship that pairs them with multiple mentors and co-teachers to help them gain experience and confidence in the classroom. Mentor teachers would also benefit from learning new strategies from beginning teachers.

In addition to training, the workload of teachers requires major readjustments. Teachers often talk about class size and it desperately needs to be adjusted. For example, it is part of my contract to have 31 students in one class and 150 students in total for the day. If I only did one-to-one lectures in a day, each student would get just under 2 minutes of my time during a 50-minute class. It’s unfair to the teachers as we try to keep up with our workload, but it’s more than unfair to the kids. Students could also receive more valuable and in-depth feedback from their teachers if we could spend more time talking to each student.

Finally, teachers need more preparation time during the working day. Teaching is a series of presentations where you are responsible for everyone in the room learning. Most teachers have only one planning period per day in order to set up their entire working day, plus grade papers, plus contacting parents and guardians at home, and perhaps using the bathroom or eating. We are contractually obligated to have fifty minutes of planning per day. Lesson planning, grading and making contact with houses cannot be done during class hours as we must supervise and monitor students while they are with us. When do we do this? On unpaid time such as nights and weekends.

Increasing salaries, lengthening and strengthening paid training programs, reducing class sizes and increasing planning time are all good for teachers, but they are also good for students. Well-trained and prepared educators who can provide more one-on-one time and stronger feedback help students achieve more. Instead of increasing testing budgets and increasing testing time, students need to spend more time with dedicated educators who have the resources to help them succeed. We need to address the teacher shortage and the best way to do this is to listen to teachers. We have been very transparent about what we need and what would benefit students. It is up to the government to decide that our children are worth the investment.

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Written by Emilie McKiernan Blanton, who is a 14-year-old educator who works in Jefferson County Public Schools.

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