A couple of years ago, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion for a podcast on teaching and learning. As we were wrapping up the conversation, the host had one last question for the guests. “How would you encourage more people to become teachers?” he asked. My mind went blank. I didn’t know what to say. Other panelists said, “teaching was a rewarding profession” and “the importance of a making difference in the lives of young people” and “all students need a champion.”
Then, it was my turn. I took a deep breath and boldly shared, “I cannot, in good conscience, encourage anyone to go into teaching right now.” I knew my answer was not expected, but at that moment, I was honest with how I truly felt. You could feel the air being sucked from the room. “Why do you say that?” asked the startled host. I continued, “There are so many issues within our profession that teachers are no longer trusted, respected, or protected. Why would anyone want to teach during these turbulent times?” There, I said it! I knew it wasn’t the politically correct thing to say, but at that moment, I needed to “call a thing a thing.”
I had wanted to be a teacher for as far back as I could remember. My Aunt Roxie was a teaching assistant at an elementary school, and she would bring home paper, pens, pencils, rulers, chalk, and workbooks to share with me. It made me so happy. I would prop my stuffed animals up and teach my lessons in front of my miniature chalkboard. And none of them had better get out of line, or they would serve detention. Even in fourth grade, for career day I dressed like a teacher with my hair in a bun, wearing fake glasses, and carrying my bag filled with ungraded assignments. To this day, I still believe teaching is my calling.
The Early Years
I received several scholarships to pay for my tuition, and I flourished in the School of Education at Indiana University. I student-taught in a middle school, and I soon learned that middle school was not for me—those kids were tough. So, I become a high school teacher. During my first job interview, the human resources director asked what high school I graduated from, and I told him. In the middle of the interview, he called the principal of my old high school and told him he was interviewing me for a position. My former principal remembered me and said to stop the interview because he wanted me to come back and teach for him. And just like that, I had my first teaching job making $25,000 a year.
My first few years of teaching, I didn’t have my own classroom, so I taught from a rolling cart in five different classrooms. I taught two sections of remedial freshman English, but our high school enrollment was 10th to 12th grade. Many of my students were bigger than me, and for others, there was only a four-year age difference. But I had found my mission.
I threw myself into my school’s culture by attending athletic events, proms and school dances, volunteering for committees and professional development activities, and coaching the cheerleading team. I taught high school language arts for eight years, from advanced to remedial classes, from composition to British literature to “College Potential” and “Night School”—freshman to seniors. Growing minds, building relationships, and inspiring students was my foundation.
My biggest stress was grading research papers on the weekends while trying to create a work-life balance. I had noncompliant and disengaged students, and I broke up a few fights. Standardized testing was just becoming part of the educational landscape, and we lost some teaching autonomy. But I still enjoyed my work. I was an effective teacher at best, but always strived to improve my craft. By the end of my tenure in 2000, I was making $38,000, which included several stipends and a master’s degree. Sadly, in 2022, more than 20 years later, the starting salary for many new teachers is not much more than that.
In 2008, I became an assistant principal after eight years of teaching. My starting salary as a school leader was $58,000, with the expectation of a $20,000 pay increase the second year. The demands of being a middle school administrator were vast, but the salary made my time worthwhile. However, over the years, the demands of being a principal have also outpaced current salaries due to longer workdays; more responsibilities; greater accessibility to students, parents, and community members (no time “off the clock”); and more overall stress of dealing with current issues in education. As a nationally representative survey released by NASSP in August shows, 1 out of 2 school leaders claims their stress level is so high they are considering a career change or retirement.
My heart breaks for the current state of the teaching profession. Enrollment is declining in schools of education across the country, with some schools closing altogether. Trying to staff buildings is becoming harder and harder, with many principals poaching teachers from other schools just to fill positions. When you look at the news, you see some large districts with hundreds of positions still vacant and no hope for filling them. Recently, I spoke to a teacher from another district who shared that when this happens, the classes without teachers are redistributed to other teachers, thus increasing their class sizes, workload, and stress levels.
Younger teachers are also leaving. Just last year, I had an amazing art teacher who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, but after two years in the classroom, she decided she wanted to follow her passion and become a tattoo artist: So, she did. During the pandemic, I lost three highly effective veteran teachers due to their fear of contracting the virus. A fourth teacher, who taught special education, took a career exploration leave to seek other professional opportunities. She decided not to return to teaching the following year. The reason? She found work in a less stressful environment with greater pay and flexibility.
It has been difficult hiring instructional assistants and cafeteria workers, too. Several of those positions went unfilled last year and might possibly stay unfilled this year. And can we discuss substitute teachers? They are almost nonexistent.
When I first became a principal, I had 20 or 30 applicants for each vacancy, and now I’m lucky if I get 10. We have postings where no one applies. Our district has hosted job fairs, but they have not attracted the people we need. The number of student-teacher candidates has slowly diminished, too. Typically, I am a glass-half-full kind of person, but my glass is starting to crack.
So, how did we get here? Low teacher salaries, parent attacks on school staff and rants on social media, politicians weaponizing education, increased stress levels, lack of support, standardized test scores used for evaluations, challenging student behavior, too many initiatives, lack of administrative support, lack of respect … the list goes on.
What School Leaders Can Do
What can principals do in the meantime? Based on my own experience, I suggest the following:
- Show up for your staff every day.
- Do a pulse check and ask how you can better support them.
- Protect their time.
- Identify what you can eliminate from their day-to-day operations, such as canceling meetings and sharing information that can be sent in an email.
- Simplify your initiatives and focus your efforts.
- Remind teachers that they are more than a test score. Highlight the amazing things your teachers are doing and share the news again and again. Nurture your relationships and let your staff know you are there for them.
Everyone has something happening in their lives, and teachers are no exception. Do your best to protect them from the outside noise. Invite concerned parents in to discuss their issues. If that doesn’t work, and their behavior is disrespectful, block their access to your teacher and filter their concerns through you.
Hold misbehaving students accountable for their actions. Teachers need to feel safe in their classrooms. Create a school climate where your teachers don’t want to leave. Encourage your “rock star” instructional assistants to participate in transition-to-teach programs. Partner with local colleges and universities for student teachers to intern in your building. The latter is a great way to grow your teaching candidate pool. Work with principal organizations such as NASSP to advocate for our teachers at both the local and federal levels.
Above all else, promote respect for our teachers and our profession. Disrespect for educators is at an all-time high, and a teacher shortage crisis is certainly looming. We have all heard the adage, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” We need to change this saying to, “Those who do, learned how from a teacher.” I do have hope for our profession, but it is going to take all of us at all levels to create positive change. Protecting our profession should be our highest priority.
Crystal Murff Thorpe, PhD, is the principal of Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, IN. She is also the 2021 Indiana Principal of the Year.