Teacher Shortage
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Teachers will soon be an endangered species. More teachers are retiring early, fewer students are pursuing careers in education. This isn’t breaking news. I’ve written about the teacher shortage a number of times over the past several years, in fact.

One of my columns noted how many teachers are experiencing “moral injury,” a term Psychology Today defines as “the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, and loyalty.”

For me, the psychological and spiritual hurt has never been greater.

I could blame the pandemic that arrived in 2020 for much of the despair, and I could cite the so-called “learning loss” that students experienced as a result. But a “teacher’s malaise” was already taking shape pre-pandemic; Covid-19 simply exacerbated it.

The seed of teachers’ current moral injury was perhaps planted at Columbine High School 24 years ago this month when two teenage students killed 13 people and wounded 20 others in a shooting spree. Thus began the now routine lockdown drills that prepare for the unthinkable recurrence of Columbine. Regrettably, “another Columbine” has happened nearly 400 times since that horrific day in Littleton, Colorado.

All I need mention are “Stoneman Douglas,” “Uvalde,” and “Sandy Hook” – of course – for people to immediately recognize the topic. Just last week, a lone individual walked into a Nashville elementary school and shot six people, killing three students and wounding three adults. The response from pols and policymakers was so predictable as to be boring: “Thoughts and prayers.”

Supposed “solutions” were also offered, but they are similarly unsurprising and mundane: “Hire armed security guards,” “offer more mental-health services,” and my personal bugaboo, “arm the teachers.” At one time, I actually had faith that this country would aggressively address this scourge of killing innocent children, but thanks to the bevy of gutless politicians gulping incessantly at the NRA money trough, I have lost all faith.

As if defending the very lives of our students is not challenging enough, teachers have become targets of another aggressor in these partisan times: the public-school critic. Typically working under the banner of “parents’ rights” – another issue I’ve addressed – these naysayers accuse teachers of “indoctrinating our children” with “woke ideologies” such as Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ rights, going so far as to call teachers “groomers.”

Consider the recent news of a Florida principal who was forced to resign after an art teacher showed 6th graders a photograph of Michelangelo’s 16th-century sculpture of David. It didn’t matter that the curriculum of the Tallahassee Classical School focused on “classical education.” (Duh.) The classical statue was of a naked man – gasp! – so, three parents complained. The principal was gone.

While nothing as ridiculous has occurred in Connecticut (to my knowledge), teachers here are feeling the chilling effect of this insidious scrutiny. Books have been removed from school library displays and lessons have been publicly interrogated. Personally, I find myself now thinking twice about certain titles and topics that I’ve been teaching, without incident, for 32 years. Some colleagues, however, have been deemed “woke” by parents because they compare the racist real-estate policies found in Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiographical play A Raisin in the Sun to the racist practices that have occurred historically here in Connecticut.

The long-term effect of this excessive surveillance of teachers is the loss of respect and autonomy. I’ve always found it extremely rewarding to bring my own creativity to lessons. One of the best feelings for teachers is concluding a lesson in which the students were enthusiastic and engaged, where the kids “got it.” Such lessons are planned within the structure of a clear curriculum, of course, but the point is that a teacher can use personal knowledge and experience to fashion them. The current state of public education, however, has made those moments less frequent.

I haven’t even addressed the other intractable factors now encroaching upon teachers. Smartphones, for example, have had a profound influence on teenagers’ ability to read and learn. I’ve written about that issue, as well. In 2019, I noted how “12 of my 21 students [in a Media Literacy class] reported their smartphone has had a negative effect on their reading habits, causing them to read less, while only three said that their smartphones encouraged more reading.” Clearly, smartphones will continue to aggravate this problem, a thought that intensifies my already disheartening feelings about teens’ reading habits – which leads us to a final exasperating factor: standardized tests.

Administered every year among 11th graders in Connecticut schools, the SAT has become the high school metric for teacher effectiveness and learning in our data-saturated world. Rather than belabor my misgivings about the standardized testing that takes place at all grade levels – you can look here, here, and here for those details – suffice to say that the abundant time and value the educational establishment places on tests like the SAT have teachers asking why they bother to teach anything of real substance.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the very reason I got into teaching now feels misplaced and unattainable. And while I do appreciate the fact that some powerful people in this state are working on solutions such as the salary increases of HB 6884, I don’t believe these ideas will ultimately address the underlying cause of the shortage: moral injury.

After 32 years in the classroom, I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to teach kids, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done. But my tank is running on empty.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 32st year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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