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September 22, 2022

Sounding the Alarm: Why We Must Prioritize Teacher and School Staff Retention

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When I was asked by AFT President Randi Weingarten to lead the AFT staff work on the Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force, I knew the work would be difficult. But when it comes to a real existential threat to education, communities and democracy, the shortage of teachers and school staff is at the top of the list. If schools do not have enough well-trained teachers and staff, it will not take long for our country to look less equitable, with more acceptance of autocracy, lower achievement, less opportunity and less freedom.

The shortage of teachers and school staff is more than a fluctuation in employment. It is society failing its next generation and those who made the choice to teach and support them. As Weingarten has said, this is one of the most important task forces in the history of the AFT.

The shortage isn’t being driven by the inability to recruit people to teach or work in schools (although this is an issue—especially with teachers of color), it is getting them to stay.

As the shortage became “newsworthy,” lots of talking heads were in the media commenting about the shortage, but few of them took the time to listen to classroom teachers or school staff working in and around schools (e.g., paraprofessionals, food service workers, bus drivers). What most of these pundits missed was that the shortage of teachers and school staff was a long-term problem that started years prior to the pandemic. There was no mention of “Red for Ed,” a magazine cover story with a teacher selling her blood to make ends meet, or years of teacher bashing and the decadelong obsession with standardized test scores. In fact, in a few of my interviews with national reporters asking about the shortage of teachers and staff, they admitted they never heard of “Red for Ed” or the testing obsession. I settled in for a long conversation and brought them up to speed, starting with… “In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind…”

That was not the worst part.

What was even more frustrating is that the talking heads were getting it wrong. Most were focusing on recruitment, not retention. But the data are clear: The shortage isn’t being driven by the inability to recruit people to teach or work in schools (although this is an issue—especially with teachers of color), it is getting them to stay. Today’s staffing problem in American schools is 90 percent retention. Once the luster of the new job wears off, people working in schools quickly understand the reality that those outside schools rarely see. Teachers and school staff do not have the respect, voice, working conditions or pay necessary to do the job. Fairly quickly, for too many, the job becomes unsustainable.

Our teacher and PSRP members were speaking with a strong singular voice. The shortage is a full-blown crisis.

From the beginning, the AFT’s work was going to be different. The task force would follow the voice of our members. Not just the teachers, but the issues that all our members who work in and around schools must deal with every day. Bringing so many job titles together would be difficult, but Weingarten insisted that it was the right way to go.

From the beginning, this task force report was, if anything, going to be our members talking about the shortage and what they believe needed to be done to fix it.

The results of our teacher and staff shortage survey showed that the shortage was a serious problem, low salaries were driving members out of the professions, and there was a need for smaller class sizes and caseloads. The survey wasn’t seeing 60 or 65 percent of members saying this or that—everything was supported by 85 or 90 percent of our teachers and PSRPs.

That said it all. Our teacher and PSRP members were speaking with a strong singular voice. The shortage is a full-blown crisis. Things need to change, and the professionals in our schools have the solutions, with three of the top four recommendations costing nothing.

  1. Reduction of paperwork.
  2. Increased salaries.
  3. Respect from administration.
  4. Latitude to teach the way students need.

Think about it: Three of the top four solutions from our members cost nothing. Requiring less paperwork (which might even save money), showing respect and allowing teachers to make instructional decisions are cost neutral. Teachers and PSRPs said loud and clear that they are required to do too much meaningless paperwork that hinders their ability to work with students, which goes hand in hand with respect and the ability for teachers and staff to do their jobs.

The shortage of teachers and school staff did not happen overnight or during the pandemic. The truth is, federal reports on the shortage of teachers go way back to 1983 and before.

There is no better example of why our schools struggle with retention. These things are virtually free, and yet our members do not have them. In fact, five of the top eight things members said school districts could do to increase retention cost nothing.

Of course, many of the recommendations are not cost neutral; in fact, they will cost a significant amount of money. Increased salaries, lower class sizes and caseloads, additional planning time and additional supports for students and teachers are not cost neutral. But they are not cost prohibitive either. And nobody is asking that these things happen overnight. Taking a more strategic and structured approach is a much better way to improve these important working conditions. Working with teachers and school staff members, schools should create multiyear plans to systematically improve the teaching and learning conditions in schools.

So where do we go from here? The answer is simple to say and hard to do. We must expand on the recommendations in the report. Some recommendations are very clear (support this legislation), while others need to be more fully developed (provide living wages). But that was always the plan: create a backbone report and build on it over the next couple of years.

The shortage of teachers and school staff did not happen overnight or during the pandemic. The truth is, federal reports on the shortage of teachers go way back to 1983 and before. This is a long-term problem that must be addressed not with simple policy changes or gimmicks (e.g., unqualified people in schools), but a concerted, reflective effort that strategically addresses the shortage of teachers and staff led by the professionals in the schools. They are the ones who know what kids need, and they are the ones who know what works. Anything less is a waste of time and money and exactly what got us in this situation in the first place.

Our country is facing many challenges and threats. The shortage of teachers and school staff is one of the most consequential. We need to get this right, and right soon.

Webinar on AFT's Teacher and School Staff Shortage Report: What You Can Do

Want to know more? Join the AFT for a special webinar on addressing the teacher and school staff shortage on Oct. 12 at 7:00 pm EDT. 

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? What America Must Do to Attract and Retain the Educators and School Staff Our Students Need

The AFT's Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force report examines the root causes of snowballing shortages and spells out practical solutions that will improve teaching, working and learning conditions.

Mr. Weil taught high school math in Colorado for twenty years. He also served as the president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) until he joined theAFT staff in 2001. Mr.

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