School’s back. Teachers aren’t.
Students, maybe you’ve noticed: Your trained and certified teachers continue to leave their careers behind, and graduates who could have positioned themselves as the next generation of educators aren’t lining up to replace them.
Three-hundred thousand vacancies greeted students at the classroom door this fall. The president of the National Education Association called the paltry opening a “five-alarm crisis.”
The alarm may be louder now, but it had already long sounded. America’s public schools haven’t been well staffed for decades. Unsurprisingly, the districts most cash-strapped are the ones struggling the most to support their teachers, and according to the NEA, they’re the same districts with the country’s most dramatic inequities.
The personal cost to students’ lives is incalculable and, mostly, still to come. You won’t know how much training in problem-solving and communication you don’t have until your life demands it of you. For some of you, that could be in the next minute. For others, the next decade.
Meanwhile, the cost to the country is in no need of calculation. We were never ready for the critical thinking recent years’ innovations now require of us. Our phones are like doors to our homes, and a clever meme, whether true or not, can knock every door in the country at once. Lies used to cost time and money to popularize. Now they cost a flex of the thumb.
Teachers are living, breathing lie detectors — just ask any kid who’s ever been caught — and most of their job instructing you in different subjects on “what we know so far” can be summarized as training you to do what they already can: use their own judgment to detect what’s false.
Students, seek out that preparation, and protest alongside your teachers when your schools stretch thin.
To see our communities thrive, we must know up from down, movement from mud. We call duty to communities big and small “civics” — and as much as teachers prepare you for later community engagement, teachers are also at the heart of more direct civics programs, like student newspapers and student government.
Let’s be clear about the reasons why empty classrooms have become so common, and our communities so vulnerable. There’s no shortage of teachers; there’s a shortage of reasonable conditions at schools.
Gun violence and strained pandemic policy have made for uncertain working conditions for educators. Endless budget cuts — both taxpayer-supported machete hacks and small carvings alike — make for uncertain living conditions as well. This September, San Francisco decided that, rather than find the money to actually make life affordable for full-time teachers, they’d try to build teacher dorms and stash teachers there instead.
Relief efforts for this crisis remain confused and — as in the cases of some states’ relaxed certification standards — possibly positioned to worsen the problem rather than solve it.
No, teachers do not want exactly what you want, students,but they align with you in more ways than you realize. They’re your referees, and every player, a student like you who just wants a fair game.
Your teachers want more planning time so they can create new lessons based on the specific needs of their current classes. They want more staffing and classrooms that aren’t packed to the brim, so that they can focus more on supporting each of you. When positions remain empty, the needs multiply, and those left end up with even more to do.
Teachers want realistic grading reform to make your work matter, neither too hard nor too easy. They want fewer standardized tests that are telling us what we already know and wasting your time. They want you safe, and no one in their classroom shot.
To support your teachers, support yourselves. Refuse to be put into a history class of 38 students. Petition to school leadership for tutors stationed in your libraries after school to help students, so that your teachers may instead plan for the next day. Find the most obscure and interesting classes in the course guide and demand your school system offer them, pulling resources away from standardized boredom and towards the needs and curiosities you are telling us you have right now.
The midterm elections are this November, and candidates’ proposed plans for education reform are already public. Know them, and support local and national leaders who prioritize your education. While you wait to cast your vote, encourage those nearest you to cast theirs — siblings, parents and guardians, uncles and aunts, grandparents, first through fifth cousins.
If your school system continues to deny educators raises for the cost of living, or tells teachers to just “deal with it” for every problem they flag, speak up for yourself by speaking up for them. Tell your boards of education and other district leaders that you also want teachers to be able to leave any second or third jobs they hold, and take on fewer rather than more extracurriculars each. Tell them that you want to learn about your world, that you want more out of school — and that means you want more for the people whose entire job description is to help you.
I’m not going to tell you to respect all of your teachers equally. Some won’t deserve it in the same way they don’t give it. I won’t tell you to value every lesson because, in a packed class, some lessons are bound to be unnecessary for some.
Alongside the educators and classes that do inspire you now, also value what you do not yet see, but could.
Students, you deserve to have adults in your lives who help you to explore your world well and confidently tell you “You’re ready” when they sense they’re no longer needed. If schools change and new teachers are climbing over each other to get assigned to their own field, what must await for everyone is more fun, more helpful, more real than school has ever felt before. The fact that schools are begging for teachers to stay is a sign that, for now, the game is a blowout and the scoreboard is broken. Your referees are walking back to their cars.
You deserve better — so stand with your teachers however you can, and demand it.