Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.
In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.
Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.
When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.
Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)
Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.
Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.
Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.
We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.
Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.
Our real problems:
- A systemic failure to invest. There is ample research about what kinds of conditions help students succeed. Greater individualization of teacher contact. Increased teacher collaboration and planning time. Access to tools, resources, and technology. Opportunities for differentiation and intervention. All of these cost money. Until we are willing to invest in these, the teacher shortage will persist. To those who say “throwing money at the problem won’t fix it” I counter with “you get what you pay for.” Policymakers are focusing on the wrong things: We have a bill in the Washington legislature to require the teaching of cursive, but policymakers choose to defer any conversation, let alone decision-making, about actually funding schools properly until after the next election.
- An addiction to accountabalism. I wrote about this last fall. The essence of the idea of “accountabalism,” as described by Harvard Law’s David Weinberger, is the situation where an obsession with accountability focuses on fixing individuals rather than repairing systems. The assumption is that “an individual’s laxness caused a given problem,” and in attempting to fix individuals en masse, “accountabalism can miss systemic causes of failure, even, ironically, as it responds to the problem by increasing the system’s reach.”
- The comments section. Of any education article, blog, post, or whatever. Regardless of the original post, once the comments section turns foul (which is usually immediately), it reveals what I think is the most difficult to resolve issue that is accelerating the teacher shortage. I was reading an article recently (can’t find it to link) about a great science project some middle kids had developed. Stupid me scrolled down, and within the first six comments I saw rage, uninformed, unfiltered and unmitigated rage, about lazy teachers, corrupt teachers’ unions, the Common Core (which, as those of us who are actually informed would know, does not even include science standards). On an article about kids who loved science and were doing some amazing learning. The article itself made no references to unions, testing, standards…but that is what the commenters chose to dredge up. It is hard enough for me even as a practicing teacher to convince myself that those are just trolls and that teachers really are valued, that rational discourse can still occur… but if I were just getting started or trying to find my career path? What kind of sane person would willingly step in front of that perpetual, anonymous, and often grossly uninformed firing squad?
There are pretty straightforward solutions to the first two, and both are rooted in wise crafting of policy and making tough decisions about taxes, locus of authority, and priorities of practice. The third? That emotionally poisonous third? Well, I’d like to say that it can start in schools where we help to teach kids about reasoned, responsible, and respectful discourse. But then I look at every example in our society, right up to our presidential candidates, and I realize that perhaps we have turned a page in America that simply can’t be turned back.
Back on track: When a student acts out in my class, there is a course of action that addresses that moment and a course of action that addresses future moments. The same is true when it comes to the teacher shortage. We can address our moment by upping our recruitment game and plowing easier paths to teaching (smh), or we can recognize that these moves do not change the conditions that have created the problem in the first place.