The coming tsunami of teacher shortages isn’t about low salaries, paltry pensions or a lack of financial support. Teachers are leaving in droves because so many of our children are utterly broken, student behavior is abhorrent, and accountability is out of vogue in our schools.
Let me grab my thesaurus and look up as many synonyms for “hurrah” and “hooray” as possible.
Students, teachers, and anyone else marooned somewhere in the educational cosmos for the past nine months have reason to celebrate. We used to denominate the school calendar by quarters, semesters, or years. Now, we think in terms of COVID waves:
The beginning of Fall Semester? Oh, you must mean the Delta wave.
The beginning of the Spring Semester? Oh, you must be referring to the Omicron wave.
The end of the school year? Oh, you must be referring to the current wave of subvariants that now provoke less worry since most of us have finally accepted we are all eventually getting COVID, it’s going to be around forever, and we have habituated ourselves to its permanence.
Yes, for teachers and students alike this was the most grueling year we have ever experienced—we endured hackneyed masking rules, inconsistent distancing requirements, byzantine quarantine edicts, and starts and stops without end. Now that those issues are hopefully behind us, the national conversation must pivot to the fallout from the past two years.
Someday, far into the future, researchers and academics will write a definitive history of how COVID-19 altered the trajectory of American education. They will probably note that morale was already low, that teachers were already overwhelmed by the pernicious habit of viewing schools as the backstop for every familial failure, social pathology, and cultural vulgarity afflicting young people. Before COVID-19 intruded on our lives, American teachers were already overwhelmed by the never-ending demands being placed upon them.
The world’s largest teacher survey in 2019 revealed that 65% of educators were showing signs of burnout and 85% revealed their work level was “unsustainable.” One of the most long-standing polls gauging the public’s view of schools and education noted in 2018 that for the first time in the history of the poll a majority of Americans, 54%, wouldn’t want their own children to become teachers. Sadly, these deplorable figures from just a few years ago don’t hold a candle to the current deflating numbers. A NEA survey from February revealed a whopping 55% of educators plan to leave the profession earlier than expected. Educational service sector resignations have surged 148%.
When these numbers were released some voiced skepticism, expressing the view that teachers were bluffing, blowing off steam to pollsters, and a mass exodus of American educators wasn’t imminent.
They were wrong.
Districts all over the country are witnessing a mass exit from classrooms the likes of which has never been seen. EdSource, an online publication which focuses on issues related to California education, quotes Lindsay Mendoza, the president of the Cutler-Orosi Unified Teachers Association, as saying: “I can’t speak for others, but even in our worst years prior to COVID, we did not see the mass exiting that we do now.”
The Wall Street Journal is documenting that former teachers find themselves as hot commodities in the labor market.
Kansas is considering letting people with only a high school diploma serve as substitute teachers.
But here is what most Americans will probably miss because it is colossally unquantifiable: teachers are leaving because the kids are different. Some of these changes in our children are just simply strange, but even more of them are deeply disturbing.
What am I referring to?
In my experience, there are more fights on campus. Student behavior is out of control — vulgarity without end coupled with mind-numbing disrespect towards teachers; TikTok challenges encouraging students to steal from “or slap” a teacher; students standing up and arbitrarily leaving the classroom. Students who freely admit they only wear masks in the classes where they want to hide and be left alone by the teacher.
Sometimes the changes are more subtle yet equally stultifying. Students who don’t think they should have to turn in homework. Students who expect extensions without end. Students who think every test should always be an open-book test. Rising rates of illiteracy. And worst of all, a mental health crisis that is finally—finally!—getting the attention of everyone on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives have long warned that a generation disconnected from family, faith, friendship, and authentic learning will result in generational ennui characterized by depression, loneliness and even self-harm. Last month, The New York Times documented the stunning reality that everyday, hundreds of suicidal teen girls spend the night in ER rooms across the country.
Ennui, it seems, has arrived en masse.
And we have asked our teachers to respond with superhuman laxity. It is a typical sign of the times that our response to any difficulty is to soften expectations and equate our ease with compassion. This is perhaps the most popular and damning educational notion of our era: decoupling consequences from poor behavior and somehow expecting a positive outcome. G.K. Chesterton wrote of “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Laxity is our “one idea” and has become a contagion.
Last week, a study found that grade inflation accelerated after 2016 and then again during the pandemic. Remarkably, students who are only in the 25th percentile of ACT performance are still receiving better than a 3.0. An article from the Fordham Institute sardonically quipped, “Will every high schooler soon have a 4.0?” In my home state of California, Assembly Bill 104 allowed “Any student who was enrolled in 11th or 12th grade during the 2020-21 school year and who is not on track to graduate in four years is exempt from local district graduation requirements that are beyond the state-minimum graduation credits.”
A lot has been written about learning loss. Yes, the students missed out on a year and a half of real lessons which deprives them of curricular content and cerebral skill sets they otherwise would have acquired. But the real story of our time will be the erosion of learning capacity itself. Students have forgotten how to learn. And adults, instead of reminding them through traditional pedagogy, timeless learning principles, and nourishing expectations, have decided it is too much to ask.
You can’t learn when you are staring at your phone during class listening to God-knows-what with your earbuds cemented into your ears. A teacher standing in front of a room teaching the curriculum of the class might not be chic instruction or avant-garde pedagogy, but it is undoubtedly more substantive than non-stop group work or working off of a tablet all day. In his book “Setting the Bar,” educator Shane Trotter frames the issue perfectly: “A guiding dogma of the modern development paradigm is that any standard of personal conduct is insensitive to those who do not achieve it.”
Of course, much of the past few years has been out of our control. Teachers and students have been subjected to the capricious whims of what the Romans called Fortuna and the Greeks labeled Tyche. But going forward we must accept that there are no easy answers, no trendy panaceas, and certainly no technological hacks for the changes imperiling our educational future. The sooner we accept this the sooner we can get serious.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.