Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

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The United States is grappling with a severe teacher shortage, a situation that poses a serious threat to the education system in our country. Teachers are “burning out,” switching careers, or retiring early, leaving schools across the country struggling to fill vacancies. The Brookings Institution reported that schools in all 50 states experienced teacher shortages in at least one subject area in 2022. And even for the teachers that remain, data from McKinsey research reveals that nearly a third of K–12 educators are currently considering leaving their positions.

This shortage not only impacts schools in urban centers but also rural and suburban areas, creating a widespread crisis that affects all communities. Desperate to fill empty positions, public schools in some states have even resorted to offering large salary increases to entice veteran teachers out of retirement. Taking a slightly different approach, hundreds of districts across the country have even adopted a four-day week, with Mondays off, in an effort to recruit and retain teachers, though evidence on the academic impact of the four-day school week is lacking.

In some respects, this shortage is not surprising given that teachers over the last few years have been expected to navigate peanut allergies and pronouns, “pivot” to online instruction at a moment’s notice, “teach to the test,” and serve a student population increasingly in need of remediation—all while experiencing declining societal respect and parental support. In recent years, a series of tragic school shootings have added to the emotional burden and demoralization experienced by educators. These traumatic events have heightened concerns over safety and security in schools and significantly impacted teachers’ well-being and job satisfaction. The fear and stress stemming from such incidents may be leading teachers to reconsider their career choices. Amidst these multifaceted challenges faced by educators, it’s important to acknowledge the compounding factors that have contributed to the current shortage of teachers.

Culture wars are further exacerbating the challenges facing teachers. Public schools are teaching that humans are mere accidents of a material universe, a worldview bereft of rationale for promoting good behavior. Moreover, history is being rewritten to fit progressive narratives, while subjects like math and English are increasingly taught through a postmodern deconstructionist lens. Even the concept of merit itself is being questioned. As parents have become more aware of these classroom worldviews, they have realized that education is infused with ideology, and what we commonly refer to as public education is, in fact, government education. Irrespective of one’s political leanings, the crucial point is that teachers are being thrust into the front lines of these culture wars, forced to navigate through complex and contentious issues.

For every reason why a current teacher leaves, that same reason stands as a warning to future educators to avoid the profession altogether. In recent months, I’ve had several meetings with administrators from schools who expressed a shared frustration: They are struggling to find qualified, mission-fit teachers. One head of school revealed that he had five faculty positions available but hardly any applicants to consider. These administrators approached me seeking assistance, specifically hoping to recruit graduates from Cairn to join their faculty. Unfortunately, like many other colleges and universities in the United States, our education programs are experiencing a decline in enrollment. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that education has become an afterthought for many students, who are instead opting for business, engineering, and visual and performing arts as their preferred career paths.

Despite having what I believe to be excellent education programs taught by exceptional faculty, the number of students choosing to major in education at Cairn is decreasing. There is incredible opportunity for Christian educators in this country, especially considering that enrollment in Christian schools has increased dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian schools that were struggling with enrollment just a few years ago now have waiting lists for every class. However, despite the opportunities, we are seeing fewer and fewer students desiring to be teachers. Of course, the increasing lack of societal support for teachers is surely contributing to this declining interest. A 2022 poll by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago revealed that only about 18% of Americans would encourage a young person to pursue a career as a K–12 teacher. For all of these reasons (and surely a few more), the pool of qualified teachers in this country is dwindling, and there are not enough new teachers to fill the gaps.

This issue is highly multifactorial, and attempting to fully encapsulate its complexity within the limited scope of this opinion piece is an impossible feat. Moreover, by venturing into the territory of such an intricate matter, I run the risk of minimizing or oversimplifying it. While I bring the perspective of an educator with some experience in the K–12 field, I am essentially addressing the facets connected to this phenomenon from an outsider’s vantage point.

I am also aware that my exploration only scratches the surface of this intricate issue, undoubtedly overlooking certain factors that have contributed to teacher burnout in our country. Enclosed within these words are reflections and observations from the viewpoint of a parent with elementary school children, a university administrator who has had the privilege of collaborating with professional educators, and a concerned U.S. citizen who cares deeply about the future of education in the United States.

I also come to this subject with the perspective of a lay theologian, and this vantage point reveals perhaps the greatest underlying issue of this crisis. I grew up in a family of educators within the Dutch Calvinist tradition, a tradition that views education as part of God’s covenant with humanity. Within this covenant, parents, educators, and students are seen as active participants with a shared responsibility to nurture children’s faith and understanding of God’s Word. It is a tradition that seeks to integrate faith with all areas of learning, emphasizing the interconnectedness of knowledge, with the conviction that faith should not be separated from from academic pursuits.

The Dutch Calvinist perspective on education highlights the importance of community and parental involvement in the educational process. The family, church, and school work together to provide a comprehensive and consistent education for all members of society. This is the tradition that prompted Dutch settlers in early America, when establishing a new settlement, to build a school before building a church, reasoning that if a community does not train up a child in the way he (or she) should go, a church building would soon be obsolete. In the Dutch tradition, to be an educator is a high calling, perhaps one of the highest outside the home. It is a tradition that shaped the landscape of education in America, but it seems that few in our society still hold to such a perspective.

Though it is certainly the case that comprehensive moral education can be challenging within the constraints of public education, a revival of the type of perspective held by Dutch Calvinism on the purpose of education could potentially elevate the role of educators in American society. By emphasizing character formation, fostering community, promoting holistic development, cultivating critical thinking, encouraging engagement with society, and valuing lifelong learning, this approach could reshape the perception of educators as not just conveyors of knowledge, but as mentors, guides, and leaders in the moral, intellectual, and personal development of their students. This approach, however, is seen by many as being naive or impractical in a society that increasingly approaches education as a social safety net.

If the teaching profession is to be revitalized, a comprehensive reevaluation of the entire education system in America is necessary. Once regarded as a privilege, schools used to serve as gateways to escape subsistence farming, factory work, or janitorial jobs. However, this perception has changed, and society now demands education for all. Consequently, schools have turned into social welfare institutions, merely keeping children off the streets rather than providing meaningful learning experiences. This approach has particularly harmed students who could have excelled in even the most challenging school environments.

As we delve into the complexities of education reform and the challenges facing the teaching profession, it becomes evident that revitalizing the education system and addressing the teacher shortage crisis are interconnected endeavors. Exploring innovative solutions to improve education’s quality and accessibility while simultaneously tackling the dearth of skilled educators requires a holistic approach. By recognizing the need to reshape the fundamental purpose of schools, we lay the groundwork for fostering a more conducive environment for both students and teachers. Simultaneously, acknowledging the societal undervaluation of teaching careers underscores the urgency to rectify the lack of support and esteem for educators, thereby fostering a more appealing and sustainable path for aspiring teachers.

To address the crisis and secure a promising future for education, schools must take decisive action. There are many viable paths toward a solution: Improving mentorship programs to ensure that teachers feel valued and inspired in their roles; offering competitive salaries and benefits; and providing targeted scholarships, grants, and loan forgiveness programs for aspiring educators are a few tangible examples. But the ultimate solution to this problem lies in elevating the respect and prestige of teaching in society and in the church. By recognizing and celebrating the contributions of teachers, and recognizing teaching as a rewarding and fulfilling career, we can attract more passionate individuals to the profession.

Our society has slowly undermined the importance and thus the attractiveness of the teaching vocation. The resulting educational inertia is increasingly threatening education in our nation. The risk is great that our children will lose the privilege of being taught, mentored, and nurtured by dedicated and capable teachers. It’s crucial that we reinvest in and recommit to the teaching profession. We must celebrate current teachers and encourage the next generation to view teaching as an honorable and fulfilling vocation, despite its many challenges. This is a critical moment in the history of education in the United States. By investing in teachers and creating a supportive environment, we can pave the way for a brighter future in education.

Dr. Adam Porcella is senior vice president and provost at Cairn University. He can be reached at provost@cairn.edu.