While American public schools serve a majority of U.S. students and employ droves of dedicated and professional educators, their system is far from perfect. Now, pressing questions about its equity and effectiveness are reaching a boiling point amidst pandemic conditions and politics. Many teachers are finding themselves overstressed, underpaid and caught in a shaky middle ground that is causing some to say goodbye to their students for good. Still, young people are heading into the profession of teaching with bright eyes looking to make a positive change.
Teacher shortages. Legislated curriculums (hello Critical Race Theory). Mask mandate madness. The headlines are everywhere, and they’re piling up in Florida as matters of education have become the hot topic issue of the times.
Some teachers are buying their own classroom supplies on a shoestring budget, others are leaving the profession in large numbers and individuals who may otherwise consider joining the field are avoiding it entirely. Yet, hope is not lost. Other young people are heading into teaching with their heads held high and a goal of making a difference. Institutions like the University of Miami are implementing programs that will help educators get educated without breaking the bank, and public awareness of some of the most important issues just may be growing.
Sophie Fiorovante, a junior majoring in Spanish who aims to become a high school teacher, said she has known she wanted to be an educator since she learned to walk.
School, she said, isn’t just a place of learning but an institution through which children are fed and given an opportunity to try new activities, play sports and socialize. “It’s a gateway to everything that a student could need for the rest of their lives,” she said.
However, she said, some of the biggest concerns she has about her chosen field include compensation, standardized testing and curriculums, and the tendency for high-level decisions about education to be made by those who haven’t stepped foot in a classroom since the day before high school graduation. And she’s not alone.
“The profession,” said Matthew Deroo, an assistant professor of digital literacies for multilingual students, “is in for a reckoning.” Big, difficult questions are being asked, he said, and “there’s not easy answers. If there were, we would have solved school years ago.”
It’s no secret, said Jennifer Krawec, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, that teacher shortages are being felt across the country in large part because of low compensation. According to Business Insider, Florida public school teachers made an average salary of $48,800 for the 2019- 2020 school year.
Typical teacher pay, said junior Teaching and Learning and Community and Applied Psychological Studies double major Rachel Peck, is “unfair.”
“If you’re coming out of college with $100,000 in student loan debt,” Deroo said, “and you’re starting as a teacher at $30,000 to $35,000 a year, that’s kind of a losing prospect from an economic standpoint.”
For those who don’t have another means of funding college, he said, this can be a major dealbreaker. According to one study Deroo worked on, he said, one in two teachers left the field within five years. COVID-19 further exacerbated issues, he said, as many educators found themselves forced to learn new technology, teach in two modes at once and address student mental health and virtual access issues.
“Teachers didn’t leave schools because of their kids,” he stressed. “They loved them and felt pain to leave them. Teachers left the profession because they felt like they couldn’t align with what the professional was asking them to do.”
With what goes on in classrooms becoming increasingly politicized, Krawec said, “it puts teachers in an impossible situation.”
“Teachers show up every day to support their students,” she said. “They’re trying to do that in the midst of these political debates and controversies and it just adds more barriers to teachers’ ability to be effective.”
“The biggest problem in the industry now,” said Fiorovante, “is that the people who are making the decisions at the executive table have never stepped foot in a classroom.” This trickles down, she said, from the highest levels of the Department of Education to local school administrators who accept the positions without a background in teaching.
Common Core standards, she said, are one example of a national policy that was well-meaning but took control out of local hands. According to this initiative’s website, these standards for English and math have been adopted by 41 states and Washington DC. While Fiorovante said she doesn’t think establishing grade-level baseline for certain subjects is a terrible idea, so that if a student moves from one state to another they can keep up, individual schools and educators should have a greater ability to adapt what goes on in their own classrooms.
A balance, Peck said, is needed. “Teaching and curriculum should not be totally government driven,” she said. “It should be community and parent driven.” Of course, she added, that doesn’t mean teaching by popular rule solely what parents want their kids to know or not know.
Standardized testing, Deroo noted, also does many students and communities a disservice while lining the pockets of private tech companies and providing little new information. “A good test would give feedback to teachers to help them to shape their practice,” he said, “but in fact most of these standardized tests don’t do that at all.”
Instead, he said, they show over and over again that students who aren’t native English speakers or who are educated in less affluent areas perform worse than their middle-class and wealthy counterparts. But rather than providing solutions, they force educators to “teach to the test” instead of providing the curriculums that their communities need.
It’s not a question of testing, he said, but of funding. To add insult to injury, he said, teachers in urban environments are less likely to be certified in the field that they teach than those in more affluent areas.
Over 70% of the teaching workforce is women, he said, with Krawec adding that in elementary and middle schools this number is even higher— and it’s mostly white. Lack of diversity in this field, she explained, is a serious matter, as studies have proven that it’s important for students to have teachers that come from similar backgrounds as themselves.
UM, she said, is hoping to address issues like these with initiatives aimed at creating a pipeline through which individuals can become educators in their local communities. The program, she said, is still in the works, with development delayed due to COVID-19. Other UM initiatives aimed at the goal of improving the educator workforce, she said, have included offering grants for educators to earn graduate degrees and offering the Professional Teacher Option for university students looking to teach at the secondary level.
“One of the fundamental purposes of public education is to be able to have the kind of civic engagement that is critical for our democracy,” said School of Education and Human Development Dean Laura Kohn- Wood. “We need to raise the level of respect, compensation and career outcomes for teachers to attract the best and the brightest, and we need to produce and support a diverse pool of highly qualified teachers.”
In teaching at UM, Deroo said “I want to cast for my students a vision of what education could be, but also give them the reality of what education is.”
Education for teachers, Krawec said, is always shifting to meet the needs of the classroom. Topics UM is working into the curriculum, she said, include virtual learning and student mental health. The students who are graduating from UM’s programs, she said, are finding themselves anything but jobless. Most, she said, have offers lined up before graduation.
Peck, who hopes to continue her education before jumping into a career, said her goal is to work toward improving an aspect of education that was lacking during her own childhood.
“I grew up homeschooled,” she said, “partly because my ADHD was so off the charts. And I heard about my friends just struggling in normal schools; they were penalized for doing neurodivergent things.”
Peck’s dream, she said, is to work with these students and ensure schools can be spaces, or have spaces, where neurodivergent students can learn effectively and without being punished for being themselves.
Perhaps many of the issues above can be addressed by a point Deroo made comparing education in the United States to that of other countries. In China, said the educator who once taught there, teachers are looked at with the same reverence as professionals like doctors and lawyers.
We can’t say for certain where they fall on the reputation scale here, but odds are the average DUI attorney is pulling a higher salary than a local third grade teacher.
Though Fioravante and Peck said they knew of all these issues, none of them were deterrent enough to warrant a change of path. The profound change educators will get to impart is benefit enough, they said, and with enough forward momentum the system’s downsides just may change too. “I love kids,” Peck said, noting that helping even one would make being an educator worthwhile.
“Every teacher goes into it hoping to make even a little bit of change,” Fiorovante said.
“I could name five of the most influential people in my life growing up, probably four of them were teachers.”
words_ kylea henseler. illustration_isa marquez. design_ keagan larkins.