The latest roundtable discussion on teacher shortages launches with this letter to future teachers. Roundtable lead John Holland challenges readers to move beyond the #ThankATeacher rituals of Teacher Appreciation Week. If we believe teachers truly matter, we must listen to their ideas, and honor the reasons they choose to teach (and stay) in this complex and challenging profession.

For the next two months, teachers of the CTQ Collaboratory will examine the issue of teacher shortages, including recruitment, retention, and ongoing teacher development. Building from their own experiences, as well as the policy research and writing of CTQ’s Barnett Berry and the Learning Policy Institute’s Patrick M. Shields featured in this recently released Kappan article, these classroom experts will propose innovative solutions to our nation’s persistent challenge: to ensure quality teaching and learning for every student.

Dear Future Teacher,

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. This is the week that the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) reserves to #thankateacher. You don’t know it yet, but this annual practice might become your least and most favorite week of the year. Let’s just say that teachers’ relationship with feeling appreciated is “complicated.” I usually kick off this “complicated” honoring of our challenging profession with a celebratory note to my teacher colleagues. This year, the amazing teachers here at the Center for Teaching Quality are hosting an eight week exploration of why we hope you will become a teacher, and the ways we believe the profession could be improved to make that possible.

Why teach?

As a public school art teacher and college professor, I have had this very conversation with many young people, future teachers, and practicing educators. As I think about who you are, I wonder, “Are you a person of color? Do you look like the students you will serve? Will you be someone who chooses to teach, even though you could do something more profitable or glamorous?” You might be in middle school right now, or maybe considering your postsecondary options as a junior in high school.

Just last week, I bid farewell to a former student who completed his student teaching at my school. He thanked me for helping him make the decision to teach when he was an undergraduate. He said it was because I asked him, “What do you want to do with your life?” and he met teachers in our class who inspired him. You face the same questions we all face: “What is important to me? What will make my life meaningful? Where do I want to be in 5, 10, or 20 years?”

The answers to these questions are changing, especially for Millennials whose ideals and expectations about careers differ from previous generations. One answer to this question is obvious. Your community needs you to become, and continue to be, a teacher because there aren’t enough teachers to go around. The demand for teachers varies by content area, state, and even by school. According to LPI’s research, if you are interested in special education, math, or science we really need you as these areas are the hardest to staff. Also, students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are more likely to have uncertified and inexperienced  teachers than low-poverty schools. These shortages are the byproduct of a combination of factors, including funding priorities, high demand, unsupportive administrators, and turnover.

Why stay?

I see the potential challenges of teaching ahead of you — mastering the instrument of your voice, your presence, and your agency. After you have made the decision to become a teacher, we face the critical task of preparing you well. Even if you select and complete an excellent preparation program, chances are where you begin your teaching career will not be where you end it. If you start in a high-poverty school like the ones I have taught in for the past twenty years, you might not last very long. I can count on one hand the number of student teachers I have seen stick around more than three years. Sometimes young teachers leave to find a better fit in a less demanding setting, while the students they teach during those first three years are passed on to yet another fresh teacher.

At first glance, teaching would seem to be an ideal career for future generations. According to a Gallup poll today’s Millennials are looking for purpose, strength based development, and working on teams led by coaches. All of these ideals are a part of being a teacher, however, they are also looking to thrive by creating a “good life” through work-life balance and supportive working conditions. These are factors that vary greatly from school to school and district to district. Will you find that the benefits outweigh the challenges in our profession?

I can tell you this. I was where you are in 1995. I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. I knew I wanted to learn, smile, and have each day mean something.

I chose to work with our most underserved and vulnerable students in a high-poverty preschool program not because it was easy, but because it was important.

I have pursued my own development for the benefit of my students and I have found a good life in teaching. After more than 20 years in the profession, I can honestly say I would make the same decision again.

Perhaps now is the time for us to move beyond Teacher Appreciation Week. Instead of seeing this as our annual opportunity to #thankateacher, let’s use this time to remember that if #teachersmatter, we listen to their ideas and honor their reasons for joining (and staying) in the profession. I believe today’s teachers offer innovative solutions for teacher recruitment and retention, many of which will be explored in this roundtable. Check back here to follow and join the conversation.

John’s post is part of CTQ’s May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.


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