Opinion: Teacher shortages shortchange students

Paul Ruth

Teacher strikes gain a vast amount of media attention, from the statewide protest in West Virginia to the recently settled Los Angeles walkout. Teachers in Michigan, as in West Virginia, are banned from striking, but Detroit teachers addressed their concerns with a sickout.

Students raise their hands during third grade teacher Celeste Brown's math class  at Madison Heights Elementary.

A more subtle occurrence is the rise in teacher shortages across the state. It is an old problem being faced across the state, from small to large and rural to urban districts. There are larger factors at play, such as an improved economy and lower unemployment rate both state and nationally. Yet, when this issue is seen as a quiet recourse, it becomes clear that the state has been on the wrong path.

Teacher shortages and turnover occur for concrete reasons. This is best understood when comparing traditional school districts to charter schools. A December 2018 white paper by the Michigan Department of Education on teacher mobility rates shows in every geographic area and locale significantly higher mobility and lower stability in charter schools as compared to traditional public schools. I have personally worked in both.

This wouldn't surprise any teacher in the profession, and obviously each individual school is unique, but the trend reveals the problem. Traditional schools more often than most charters offer better salary, income stability, protective union contracts, state retirement plan access, negotiated healthcare, community engagement, safe building conditions and support as a professional. Some charters do this as well, but the trend comparison demonstrates the need.

At the same time, traditional public schools have also seen wage stagnation, retirement attacks and building conditions worsen. Overall schools across the state have taken a hit. The comparison reveals what the state should be doing and encouraging.

The MDE also published “Grow Your Own: Addressing Vacancies and Shortages,” which would aid school administration filling spots in the classroom. With fewer college-aged students entering teacher preparation programs, there needs to be a comprehensive push to improve schools and stabilize the profession for the future.

Teachers strike for pay, but as seen in Los Angeles, it is also about building conditions, class size and school stability like having a school nurse. In Michigan, many teachers leave one school for another seeking this kind of employment stability. The real question is, what is best for kids? The argument has been made before, but what is good for the teaching profession is good for kids.

Teacher shortages and turnover are not issues that most children will come home and discuss. In many places it becomes the normal. These problems place stress on students because they stress teachers across the school, lead to a greater chance of disorganization in the classroom, and slow the learning pace built on teacher-student relationships.

Schools will struggle until we grow the profession.

Paul Ruth is a high school English teacher and adjunct college instructor in St. Claire Shores.