Column: Teachers matter: Let’s support them

Nicola Soares

HELP WANTED: Civic-minded workers with high hopes and low expectations to join a defunded and dwindling team. Should excel at crisis prevention, social services, family therapy, crowd control, and administrivia. Current credentials must be maintained at own expense; outdated supplies provided free of charge. Those uncomfortable with dilapidated work sites, declining pay, and imminent violence need not apply. Margin for error: zero. Willingness to live in tiny home a plus.

Is it any wonder that our teachers and their communities are taking to the streets and demanding change? Or that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years? Or that teacher education enrollment dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014 alone? As sobering as those statistics are, it’s not just a shortage of teachers we’re facing. It’s a shortage of meaningful conversations, innovative approaches, and sane solutions to a dire problem that is on the verge of crippling our country’s future. Teaching has always been a high-stakes profession, but the unprecedented demands on today’s front-line educators are stacking the odds against success.

At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, almost every state had teacher shortages in major subject areas. That crisis only stands to get worse — and even more painful in certain geographies and specialties, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). With automation and digital disruption barreling ahead at breakneck speed, public investment in K-12 schools has decreased in many states over the last decade. Those that have cut the deepest have also cut income tax rates, weakening their state’s main revenue source for schools. In the most recent U.S. Census Bureau spending report showed that 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were before the recession. Teachers now earn on average, 17 percent less compared to other similarly educated professionals.

Dissatisfaction with compensation is only one of the drivers of teacher unrest and attrition. Inadequate preparation, lack of support for new teachers, challenging working conditions and long work days take a combined toll that is too much for many to bear. Even as classroom sizes swell to unmanageable levels, in some districts, computers and textbooks are more than a decade old. Teachers — on their own dime and their own time — forage for resources to equip their students with accurate information.

In an extraordinarily tight and constantly transforming job market that has employers scrambling for qualified workers to fill open positions, America can ill afford to throw roadblocks up at K-12 levels that will surely worsen the situation in the short and long term. We need to be expanding education funding at this critical moment, not shrinking it. If students don’t receive educations that allow them to reach their full potentials, including advancing to professional skill trade programs and universities, we will soon see the impact in accelerated shortages of workers able to take on the demands of tomorrow’s job market.

It’s time to turn our dire circumstance into decisive action. Let’s not waste the positive momentum rising up across states as teachers demand equity for their students. As parents and policy makers, community leaders and citizens, let’s answer their rallying cry with one of our own: A quality K-12 education is a civil right and a shared responsibility.

I ask you to support your local school district. For if we do not support education, we are turning our backs on this country’s future and its future workforce.

Nicola Soares is vice president and managing director of the educational practice for Kelly Services.