What teachers need besides more money

Shamrock Elementary kindergarten teacher Ashleigh McClahan read to her students on the first day of class last year.
Shamrock Elementary kindergarten teacher Ashleigh McClahan read to her students on the first day of class last year.

This month more than 50 million children will enter or return to more than 100,000 public schools across the United States. Whether or not their classrooms will be fully staffed by certified teachers remains a question.

America has a teacher shortage. Given the approximate 30 percent decline in post-secondary enrollment in teacher preparation programs in North Carolina alone, unless we take action now, this shortage will become a full-blown crisis in the next decade. What can policymakers, elected leaders and school officials do to turn this around?

Every profession requires a suite of attractors, otherwise known as a compensation package. And while they were never paid a lot, teachers were compensated with high status in their communities, job security, summers off, a decent pension and lifetime health benefits. A decision to become a teacher meant that you were choosing a civilized life – a thoughtful, dignified, meaningful and rewarding life. All of this was part of the package – the suite of attractors.

While money is an important piece of any successful effort to recruit and retain teachers, it is not sufficient. Further, research remains inconclusive as to whether linking pay to performance or effectiveness to financial incentives has any impact. There is scant evidence that merit pay or bonuses cause teachers to bring their secret “A” game to work – or to do what they know works only if there is going to be a little more cash in their June paycheck.

School districts have decreased the amount of money allocated to reimburse teachers for graduate coursework and professional development, there are new statewide efforts to link test scores to teacher evaluations and tenure was eliminated in North Carolina in 2013. Additionally, teachers are being asked to take on a myriad of roles and responsibilities that far exceed those traditionally associated with teaching – all while navigating complicated and demanding work environments.

Who’s beating down the doors for that life? What happened to the thoughtful, meaningful, dignified, and rewarding life that came with a decent salary, high social status, job security, and a pension?

Teachers, like all professionals, deserve a decent salary commensurate with their education, experience and expertise. But it’s not entirely about money. Perhaps we need to imagine our schools less like businesses that are designed to raise test scores and more like families that are empowered to raise children.

We are grateful that the N.C. legislature voted to increase teacher pay by an average of 4.7 percent, lifting the average teacher salary to approximately $50,000. At the same time, we look forward to working with our partners to explore additional ways to make teaching an attractive career choice and a rewarding and sustainable life.

Doing so will include streamlining licensure requirements and pension transferability; expanding initiatives like CMS’s Project Lift that differentiates salary and benefits for high demand subjects in high need schools; and creating “Opportunity Cultures” that establish career ladders that keep effective teachers engaged in teaching and learning without having to move into administration.

Finally, let’s stand with and behind our teachers as they ready their classrooms and prepare their hearts and minds for another opportunity to transform lives and shape our collective future.

Ross Danis is the President of MeckEd, an independent non-profit.