What kind of teacher shortage do we face?

Imagine a field hospital in a battle zone staffed entirely by cooks, engineers, and mechanics. The cooks wear stethoscopes, the engineers take patients’ blood pressure, and the mechanics stanch bloody wounds as best they can with patches of gauze and rolls of duct tape.

Here’s the salient question about that field hospital: Is there a doctor shortage or not?

Seen one way, the hospital has plenty of doctors. Every time a patient comes in, someone is there to meet him. There are plenty of hands taking pulses and enough ears listening to hearts beat.

The only problem is that the people performing a doctor’s duties are not, in fact, doctors. They lack the medical training, experience, judgment, and expertise to care for wounded patients. Malpractice abounds. That malpractice has real consequences for the healing and survival of patients who deserve better care.

How should we measure the teacher shortage?

The teacher shortage is real. It should not be measured by how many teaching positions are filled or vacant. We should measure it by how many skilled, experienced teachers we have in proportion to the need.

When I began teaching in 2000, I was like a cook hired to do a doctor’s job. I entered the profession through Teach For America, which meant I received six weeks of training alongside other smart, caring, but fundamentally inexperienced teachers. Most of us had never heard the words “assessment” or “rubric,” let alone learned how to implement a balanced literacy program or scaffold difficult texts for English Learners and struggling readers. The mentor teacher provided for me through TFA had one year of experience.

I tried hard. I cared about the kids. I got better. And for those who would like to use my story to bash Teach For America, here is the chilling truth: I was better than many of the other teachers at my school. I did not do the crossword puzzle at my desk or slam 4th graders against lockers like one of the more experienced teachers did. And there were plenty of teachers like the man who entered P.S. 192 the same year I did on an emergency credential like mine. Like me, he lacked any experience or background in education. Unlike me, he did not have the professional development and guidance offered by a cadre of other teachers and support staff, because he was not affiliated with any program. His fingerprints cleared the system—no criminal record—and he was hired to teach.

Claiming there is no teacher shortage demands a set of “alternative facts” that insults the children and families—most of them people of color, virtually all of them poor—who live in neighborhoods where the teacher shortage is a daily indignity. It’s like telling people in a famine-stricken country that at a global level, there is no food shortage. Let them eat cake.

The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy.

I did a two-year Masters, with five student teaching placements and a strong focus on child development and teaching English learners, before returning to the classroom in 2004. I have taught at my current school, where 99% of the children live in poverty and 85% are English Learners, for the past 13 years.

My school is an anomaly. Most teachers have a Masters degree and six of us are National Board certified. Every one of us has a teaching credential. There is no teacher shortage in my school because of simple reasons that have nothing to do with lowering standards or taking shortcuts. We have an outstanding principal who respects teachers and the work we do. Teacher salaries in the district are the highest in the state. We have time built into the week for collaboration, separate from our daily prep period.

The children we teach have greater needs than children who speak English as their first language, get plenty of food to eat, and have access to health care. Our school meets those needs. We provide children with free breakfast in the classroom, books they get to keep, backpacks of food on weekends, and an on-site wellness clinic.

Our principal and teachers resist the temptation to measure everything by test scores. We feed our students’ minds as well as bodies, with opportunities for creativity and critical thinking. Jones Elementary is a joyful place to be a child, a parent, or a teacher, and our annual turnover is very close to zero.

The real teacher shortage is not an absence of warm bodies free of criminal records. It is an absence of talented, caring, experienced professionals who choose to teach and remain in the high-poverty schools where they are needed most.

There are solutions to the teacher shortage. A salary scale high enough to honor the importance, complexity, and difficulty of the work teachers do. Professional autonomy. Freedom from bad policies that choke the professionalism from the profession. Administrators who respect and support teachers as colleagues rather than subordinates.

These solutions take time, commitment, and investment of funding as well as political will. But before we even get to the problem, we have to stop ignoring the evidence.

There is a shortage of skilled, experienced teachers. That shortage hits communities of color and children of poverty hardest.

Education is a fundamental human right. Let’s do what it takes to ensure that right for the youngest and most vulnerable human beings in our care.


Justin’s post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.