BARTH KECK

Six months ago, I explored the struggles of teaching during the pandemic and wondered if a net decrease in teachers would ensue: “Will ‘teacher loss’ replace ‘learning loss’ as the more apt phrase?”

My conclusion was cautiously optimistic: “Despite the immense challenges, particularly over the past year, most teachers will return to school come late August.”

Now, nearly two months into the new school year, it looks like my optimism needed more caution.

“Since January 2020, more than 1,500 teachers have retired from Connecticut schools, and more than 800 filed for retirement for July 2021, according to the Connecticut Teachers Retirement Board” leaving many districts in need of teachers, the Journal Inquirer reported last month.

To illustrate the point, Hearst CT Media explained how “Bridgeport has close to 70 vacancies throughout the district. Many of those are among teachers, including 16 in special education, and support staff such as speech and language pathologists, school psychologists and school nurses. The district received yet another resignation on Tuesday [of last week].”

Connecticut is not alone.

“The teacher shortage has been building across the U.S. for years,” notes the National Education Association, “but this fall – as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage and educator pay continues to lag – districts are opening schools with numerous teaching vacancies.”

I still love teaching, and I remain absolutely willing to put in the time to do the job effectively. But it’s the teaching that I love, and it’s the teaching that’s getting lost in the milieu of societal issues whose solutions are falling ever more heavily on schools.

“[N]early a third of teachers said the pandemic had made them more likely to leave the profession,” according to an NEA survey. “That number includes one in five teachers with less than 10 years’ experience. It also includes 40% of teachers with 21 to 30 years’ experience, who are presumably leaders and mentors on their school campuses.”

So, why are so many teachers so distraught?

In a word, stress.

The job of teaching – never a walk in the park, as anyone one who’s done it successfully will tell you – requires more from teachers now than ever. I say this as a veteran of 30 years who, for the first time in my career, cannot make headway on my list of tasks. Another longtime teacher and education writer, Peter Greene, puts it this way:

“Teaching is always performed up against the limitations of the work, but right now the limitations are greater than ever. The bucket is way past overfull. And teachers are becoming frustrated with the number of compromises they have to make, the number of things they know they want to do in their classrooms, but can’t.”

What, exactly, must teachers do now?

Maintain a safe and healthy classroom by implementing social-distancing and mask protocols. Attend to students’ social-emotional needs, which are understandably off-the-charts. Respond to oscillating public demands for teaching this topic but not that topic. Keep pace with an incessant cascade of emails. Advise clubs and coach athletic teams. And, oh yes, plan four lessons a day, teach five classes, and grade 42 essays that you just collected after grading 15 quizzes and 25 written assessments – all of which is kind of important, too.

If nothing else, this situation has given researchers a new focus. Just announced last week, a collaborative program between UConn Health, UConn Storrs, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell will conduct a five-year study focused on “improving the mental well-being of school teachers.”

“Decades of ignoring teachers’ poor mental well-being combined with the stressors of COVID-19 has significant short- and long-term threats to the teacher supply in the U.S.,” said Lisa Sanetti, professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education. “The implications for students, families, districts, and our nation could be dire.”

Put another way, why would any graduating high school senior want to pursue a career whose upside is rapidly disappearing? The Rockefeller Institute, in fact, had already discovered a declining interest in teaching before the pandemic:

“The number of graduates from teacher education programs in Connecticut fell in recent years, from 1,991 in the academic year 2009-10, to 1,394 in 2015-16, a 30% decline in just six years. Enrollment in teacher education programs dropped even more steeply, from 8,215 in 2009-10 to 2,827 in 2015-16, a 66% decrease, which may augur further declines in graduates.”

Don’t get me wrong. I still love teaching, and I remain absolutely willing to put in the time required to do the job effectively. I love helping kids grow, learn and achieve. But it’s the teaching that I love, and it’s the teaching that’s getting lost in the milieu of societal issues whose solutions are falling ever more heavily on schools. 

Bottom line: If things keep going in this direction, “teacher loss” will indeed supplant “learning loss” as the more pertinent concern in the long term.

Barth Keck is in his 31st year as an English teacher and his 16th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at keckb33@sbcglobal.net.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or Regional School District 17.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.