Teachers Have Too Many Extra Responsibilities to Be Effective. Some Ways to Help
Tadros & Faulkner: Easing the pressure, raising pay and tending to teachers' mental health can bring joy back to the classroom — and the career path.
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Summer break offers a timely moment to take a step back and check in with teachers, to ask: “How are you really doing?” We posed this question to 1,000 teachers in our April 2023 annual survey of educators from across the country, and their responses align with our own everyday experiences: Teachers are not doing well.
Their ever-increasing range of responsibilities has left teachers burned out, reconsidering the profession and warning the teenagers in their lives to steer clear of education as a career path. Fewer prospective educators are pursuing certifications and enrolling in training programs.
Keeping teachers from leaving and prospective educators interested means rethinking the role for the 21st century.
During the pandemic, the challenges teachers have confronted for decades magnified. Schools scrambled to ensure students could access meals and grappled with a mental health crisis. Districts struggled to close the digital divide and provide access to internet and technology devices so students could continue learning. Teachers worked longer and more difficult hours as they learned new technology-based platforms, pivoted their lesson plans and tried to reach every student.
While these challenges took on a different, more urgent face throughout the pandemic, they weren’t new, and they won’t disperse with the so-called return to normal. The roles of schools and teachers have grown over time. From teaching and learning to nutrition to mental health to digital access and more, schools are essential to communities and a catch-all when it comes to child development and wellness. While we believe it is essential for schools to play this role, the solution cannot be simply to add more and more responsibilities to teachers’ shoulders until they can no longer carry the weight.
The 2023 Voices from the Classroom annual teacher survey shows that a strong majority of teachers, 87%, agree that they have too many responsibilities to be effective educators. Their role has expanded infinitely and is no longer sustainable. Today, teachers are not only expected to tackle learning gaps, but address students’ residual trauma and mental health struggles — as well as their own — and to play a central role in delivering on the myriad promises of the public K-12 education system.
This overexpansion of teachers’ roles and responsibilities has put the future of the profession at risk. It’s time to reevaluate the role of educator.
What will it take for schools to be able to develop and implement an approach that meets the needs of the whole child without sacrificing the well-being of the teacher?
First and foremost, it means easing some of these growing pressures and responsibilities and increasing the amount of time in the day dedicated to teachers’ core responsibilities. When respondents were asked in our survey what they needed to help students overcome pandemic induced-learning setbacks, for example, the most desired resource was more support staff, and the most sought-after professional learning support was how to effectively collaborate with those staff members. Schools must be more strategic as they divvy up responsibilities among the adults in the building so each person can do fewer things, but do each of them better, and in collaboration with others. While this sometimes means hiring more staff, it often involves deploying them differently. Organizations like Education Resource Strategies have shared frameworks for how to do this.
Next, teachers must be paid the compensation they deserve. Educators continue to earn far less than their college-educated peers and are paid based on an inflexible salary schedule, unique to their profession, that ignores working conditions and their impact on student achievement. Too many teachers find they need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, regardless of their credentials or certifications, adding to an already unsustainable workload. Teachers should be paid more, and their compensation must reflect their quality and their workload.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the importance of supporting the mental health of not just students, but educators. A great first step is saying it out loud: Teachers in our school are struggling, and we must make supporting them a visible part of our vision and culture. This explicit recognition allows educators to feel more comfortable expressing their challenges and seeking help. Additionally, providing mentorship and peer-to-peer growth opportunities and involving teachers in school and district decision making are concrete ways to not only bolster their well-being, but also bolster their effectiveness.
With these changes, teachers will be able to more effectively focus on their primary responsibility: educating the nation’s students. Achieving this will not only address the burden of teachers’ workloads, but show prospective educators that teaching is a sustainable and fulfilling career and, ultimately, support students’ academic achievement and lifelong careers.
Also contributing to this essay: Omar Araiza, fifth grade teacher, Los Angeles; Cory L. Cain, dean of instruction, Chicago; Richard de Meij, K-12 world languages teacher, Hartford, Connecticut; Arthur Everett, high school social studies teacher, Brooklyn; Pamela Femrite, former special education teacher, Minneapolis; Leona S. Fowler, assistant principal, Queens; Daniel Gannon, high school history teacher, Westchester, New York; Shirley Jones-Luke, high school English teacher, Boston; Jennifer López, fifth grade teacher, Sylmar, California; Mark Morrison, fourth grade teacher, Stratford, Connecticut; Dee Nix, impact director, Chicago; Carlotta Pope, 11th grade English teacher, Brooklyn; Susan Providence, third grade teacher, St. Paul; Dr. Winnie Williams-Hall, elementary special education teacher, Chicago.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, CityFund, Joyce Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation provide financial support to Educators for Excellence and The 74.
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