Taylor Mali is a teacher. His 3-minute poem, What Do Teachers Make? – linked above – begins:
“He says the problem with teachers is,
What’s a kid going to learn from someone
Who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?”
I couldn’t help but think about Mali’s poem – and his 2011 book, What Teachers Make – as I read the October 7, 2019 news that Governor DeSantis put increase in starting teacher salaries on his “must do list” for Florida’s 2019-20 legislative session. He’s proposing that Florida teachers statewide starting salaries begin at $47,500. Doing so would make Florida’s starting teacher salaries the second highest in the land.
There were a few happy online comments, but several questions were raised. Like “We are happy that the conversation is taking place. But the governor failed to mention how we’re going to retain teachers.”
Teach.com points out that the average teacher in Florida currently makes $49,407 annually, less than $2,000 more than the proposed new starting salary, not much of a reward for sticking around to teach our children, considering What Teachers Make, as Mali so eloquently reminds us.
These puzzling comments led me to dig a little deeper, into what FSU Professor Paul Cottle calls Florida’s most urgent education issue: Florida’s teacher shortage. During the 2017-18 school year one out of every 15 K-12 biology classes and one out of every 14 K-12 math classes in Florida were taught by uncertified teachers. In earth sciences, it was 1 out of 10. In English classes, it was 1 out of 8. In 2018-19 there were 36 high schools of 1,000 or more students that didn’t offer physics at all.
Professor Cottle points out:
“In some subjects, these [teacher] shortages are intensifying as declining numbers of individuals decide to pursue teaching certifications. The number of teaching candidates taking Florida’s high school math certification exam for the first time declined by 42 percent from 2013 to 2018. In chemistry and physics, the numbers of candidates taking the certification exams for the first time dropped by 39 percent and 35 percent, respectively, during the same five-year period.”
The Florida Department of Education publishes annually, “Identification of Critical Teacher Shortage Areas.” The Appendix has a long list of schools ranked D and F and a longer list of “Low-Economic Schools.”
Former 16-year Florida legislator, Paula Dockery wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat:
“Once again Florida faces a teacher shortage as our public-school students begin the new school year. It’s estimated that the shortage is around 3,500 teachers statewide and affects about 300,000 children, who will have a temporary or substitute teacher — if those can be found…. The problem is multi-faceted. New teachers — about 40 percent— are leaving the job after the first five years. The number of college students wanting to become teachers is dwindling.”
After meeting with teachers, Dockery provided a list of what teachers had to say, including:
• Teachers are leaving because they can’t afford to continue in the profession. Many have two jobs.
• Florida’s Legislature has diverted taxes to corporate charter schools and testing companies; creating a school grades system that consistently rewards rich schools while punishing poor schools; ignoring teacher, administrative, and school board concerns about over testing. Florida voters have consistently empowered the Florida Legislature to enact its 20-year, slow-motion destruction and privatization of public education.
Of course, Florida’s conservative legislature expressed its Democracy-of-Dollars concern about where Florida will get the money to pay starting teachers the hefty annual salary of $47,500.00. The Orlando Sentinel reports:
“On Thursday, the House PreK-12 Education budget committee followed [DeSantis’] lead, digging into the subject of teacher pay increases while emphasizing that other programs would likely have to see cuts. Committee chairman Rep. Chris Latvala said the House isn’t likely to agree to an increase in local property taxes used to pay for public education.”
(When judging Florida’s ability to pay teachers, consider that Florida’s annual teacher’s salary is about $5,000 less than the Tampa Bay Bucs paid its quarterback for each pass completion he’s thrown this year – and Florida has no income tax. And then there are legislative spending choices: Tierra Verde, the pristine island on which I live, had little trouble getting a grant from the state to spend $1 million beautifying the island’s Bayway Drive with a bevy of flowers and Royal Palms. And St. Petersburg will be spending about $3 millions of taxpayer’s money for Janet Echelman’s 350-foot-sculpture for its new Pier District. And when I stand on our porch overlooking Tampa Bay I marvel at 1824 beautiful, colored lighting fixtures adorning 1.7 miles of the Skyway Bridge, recently installed at a cost of $15 million, paid from bridge tolls. And there’s a buzz about building a new Rays $892 million baseball stadium in Tampa, to be funded by municipal bonds and tax-funded Community Redevelopment dollars. And there’s a proposal to continue subsidizing the Cross-Bay Ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg, although the plan is questioned by Commissioner Kathleen Peters, “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m saying the poor people of Pinellas shouldn’t be subsidizing the wealthy for their entertainment.” Of course, I’m only talking about what’s going on in Tampa Bay. But, then, there’s the 2019 law passed by the Florida legislature that requires local referendum-approved school district property tax increases to pay local public school teachers higher wages to be shared with private-entity-operated charter schools, and is subject to Florida’s 10 millage limitations.)
Florida’s teacher’s shortage is not unique. Student learning is stunted throughout our country by a massive teacher shortage. A recent study reports that the teacher shortage is not only real but it is growing. The problem is particularly damaging in high-poverty urban and rural areas, driven by:
• Demoralization, and
• Scarcity of effective professional development, training and mentoring.
The Business Insider reports that there is a national shortage of 307,000 teachers:
“[S]ince the Great Recession of 2008, the country lost 60,000 jobs in education. Not only that, but 247,000 more teaching jobs should have been created to keep up with growing student enrollment as the population increases.”
You can check teacher shortages by state at teach.com.
It should now be obvious:
Public school teaching has become the job too many Americans simply won’t take!
So, I have a question:
How will Florida, the third most populous state, with the fourth biggest economy, in the wealthiest nation in the world, solve its most urgent education problem, its teacher shortage?
Will Florida follow Arizona and other states desperate steps and fill our teacher shortage with Filipino Teachers?
The Arizona starting salary of $36,300 may not entice Americans, but it’s about ten times what a teacher makes in the Philippines.
Importing foreign teachers may be a good economic deal for taxpayers, and it may be a good economic deal for the foreign teachers, but if we’re concerned about What Teachers Make, about teachers as true difference makers for our children, and not just about what teachers are paid, is it a good deal for us Floridians, particularly our young?
• Can the cultural differences between teachers and students and parents and communities be solved?
• A prime purpose of education is not the mere teaching of mathematics or science or English but citizenship. Can a visiting international teacher communicate our nation’s fundamental values and the essentials of good citizenship that are not as well told in a book as they are in human experience?
And, of course, there is the matter of our growing national discomfort with immigrants. Most of the foreign teachers are admitted with an H-1B visa, which allows school boards to hire foreign teachers to fill a “specialty occupation” in which there is a shortage of skilled Americans. The visa lasts three years, with the possibility of a couple of one-year extensions. So when the visa expires, no matter how successful the foreign teacher is, or how ingrained he or she has become in the community or bonded with his or her class, the teacher must pack up and go home. The visas don’t provide an option to become a citizen.
Baltimore recently experienced the pain of its Filipino teachers having to leave when their visas expired and the difficulty in getting them back. The absence proved difficult for students, particularly autistic students, who bonded with their teachers. Consistent with his overall objections to immigrants, President Trump also opposes H-1B immigrants as being outside his “Buy America, Hire Americans” policy, and issued an executive order to reassess the program. The “reassessment” slowed the renewal process, forcing cities like Baltimore to hire temporary teachers until visas for its now regular Filipinos were reissued.
Sooner or later, and hopefully sooner, we will come to agree with Thomas Jefferson that the “principal foundations of future order” are built in our education system and it is there, as Jefferson concluded, that “the first elements of morality too may be installed into [the children’s] minds.” Jefferson also favored teaching children that happiness “does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, good occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” And that understanding starts with a good education, which for the vast majority of youngsters must be a public education.
And sooner or later, and hopefully sooner, we will come to realize that our children will never reach their potential in an education system that is under funded and under staffed with competent, well-paid teachers.
Peter Greene points out in his Forbes article, We Need To Stop Talking About the Teacher Shortage:
“You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage. Calling the situation a “teacher shortage” suggests something like a crop failure or a hijacker grabbing truckloads before they can get to market. It suggests that there simply aren’t enough people out there who could do the job. There is no reason to believe that is true. But pretending that it is true sets up justification for a variety of bad ‘solutions’ to the shortage…. The qualified people exist, but too many states and school districts want to pretend otherwise, in part because there is one other appealing aspect to viewing this as a teacher shortage. The shortage model allows state and district leaders to shrug and say, ‘Hey, they just aren’t out there. It’s not our fault.’ When the dealer won’t sell me my $1.98 Porsche, I can blame it on him and complain, ‘It’s not my fault he wouldn’t sell to me.’ Or I can suck it up, take a look in the mirror and say, ‘If I want that car, I need to do better.'”
When we finally decide to suck it up and do better we will come to realize the wisdom of Mali’s concluding remarks in his book, What Teacher’s Make:
“Would we come to consider children the most valuable resources on earth? Because guess what? They are.”
What do teachers make in the jobs most Americans won’t take? A difference.
What about you?