Who will teach when my generation retires?

A strengthening economy and education reforms are driving away both current and potential teachers.
A strengthening economy and education reforms are driving away both current and potential teachers. AP

Every year as the school year winds down, someone asks me when I’m going to retire. Perhaps I look especially weary that first week of June, or my hair is noticeably grayer. Often the person asking is a long-time veteran teacher, and I wonder how much the question is really for me.

I started teaching in January 1977 in a special education classroom for children labeled “emotionally handicapped.” You would have to look long and hard for another teacher as unprepared as I was, but the principal was desperate after the certified teacher left without warning.

Every first-year teacher flounders a little before learning how to swim, but I would have drowned without my teacher’s aide. Classes were small – only three to five students each period – but even so, we struggled to keep order. In addition to their behavioral issues, my students suffered from being so poor that some had no running water at home and most came to school hungry and dirty.

By the end of the school year, my head was above water. I stopped crying on the way to work and back. I had some rudimentary classroom management skills, more patience, and a better understanding of the effects of poverty on children. When I think of those students now, I feel grateful that they taught me so much and embarrassed that I taught them so little.

Part of me is surprised that I didn’t walk away after that difficult first year. Nationally almost half of novice teachers leave the profession within five years. Managing students, making learning engaging and meaningful, spending enormous amounts of time off the clock planning lessons and grading papers, and getting paid poorly are some of the reasons teachers quit.

More alarming are the numbers of college students who decide against teaching at all. Despite widespread teacher shortages, especially in high school content areas such as math, science, technology, and foreign language, college students are choosing other professions.

Bill McDiarmid, who served as the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education until 2015, told NPR’s Eric Westervelt last year that the decline in enrollment was “a steady downward line on a graph. And there’s no sign of its being turned around.”

McDiarmid cited several reasons, including a strengthening economy and the cumulative effects of current education reforms.

“The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations,” Westervelt wrote. “Throw in the erosion of tenure protections and a variety of recession-induced budget cuts, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis.”

McDiarmid added that teachers are scapegoated by politicians and the media.

“It tears me up sometimes to see the way in which people talk about teachers because they are giving blood, sweat, and tears for their students every day in this country. There is a sense now that ‘If I went into this job and it doesn’t pay a lot and it’s a lot of hard work, it may be that I’d lose it.’ And students are hearing this. And it deters them from entering the profession.”

Hopefully, those reforms keeping potential teachers away and driving teachers out will run their course soon. The backlash against high-stakes testing and unfair teacher evaluations are widespread and growing.

Otherwise, by the time teachers my age do retire, there may not be anyone to teach the next generation.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: