While a national teacher shortage predated COVID-19, growing evidence suggests that the shortage of educators will grow in coming years as the aftershocks of the pandemic reverberate.
And now millions of children face large gaps in learning after classrooms closed and the shift to online learning happened so quickly. We have a national crisis on our hands, and we need to act boldly and swiftly to ensure we minimize the long-term consequences of the pandemic on our children’s future.
Our biggest hope to address these gaps is teachers who are well-skilled and well-resourced to tackle an unprecedented time in public education.
The U.S. Senate recently confirmed Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education and among his most important jobs is to focus on overhauling teacher training to address what we have known for decades — that current training programs fail to provide the practical classroom skills educators need to help students learn.
And now is the right time to overhaul teacher training to serve students better.
Our teacher training system was struggling before COVID-19. We too often put young educators in classrooms and leave them to their own devices, a sort of sink-or-swim game that hopes for the best but does nothing to ensure it.
No wonder teachers feel unsupported, unsuccessful or stressed. No other profession does this to their practitioners in this way. Prospective teachers know all this, and fewer are considering becoming teachers.
I felt this way as a young history teacher fresh out of college. At age 22, I had nearly 200 students across my classes and I was observed only twice in my entire first year. I was desperate to help my students learn, but woefully unprepared. Thirty years later, this still happens to too many teachers.
Fortunately, there’s a blueprint for how to address teacher training that will yield sustainable benefits for teachers and students. Ten years ago, the Obama administration announced plans for a massive restructuring of teacher training programs.
The report was hopeful. It applauded districts and school systems across the nation that had figured out how to recruit teachers, train them, and ensure that the kids they taught actually learned. And there was no one way to get it right — the Obama administration had amassed a variety of ways schools and districts were making tangible progress.
Help teachers learn best practices
At our 55 schools in the Northeast, our teachers continue to get dozens of hours a year of coaching and professional development from our principals — similar to how much they received before the pandemic.
The teacher skills we focus on now look different, of course — from increasing engagement online when your students are at home to how you can continue to see students’ math work in real time so that you can continue to ensure rigorous learning.
Our educators are leading this work. They have even started a blog because other teachers across the country are hungry for practical solutions they can put to work right away.
The pandemic presents a unique and unexpected opportunity: Training massive numbers of teachers in important skills via video.
Across America, teachers in different types of schools are knocking it out of the park with their kids. Now is the time to make sure we open those channels for thousands of other teachers to learn from.
At our organization, we’ve created space for teachers to work together in planning meetings, even if that’s through Zoom, not only to continue to do right by kids but also to keep a sense of normalcy for educators amid so much that is not normal. Our principals also continue to coach and lead teacher-skill clinics because teachers want feedback that will help them improve their craft.
Acknowledge pandemic’s damage
At a time when districts and teachers are in contentious battles over whether it is safe to have in-person class, it’s time for a unifying plan that recognizes the toll the pandemic has taken on students as well as educators.
Providing teachers more training will make their jobs easier, more satisfying and more effective. In turn, students will benefit.
Students across the country will eventually return to school for full days. But let’s not return to the status quo on teacher training and support. Let’s honor and respect teachers for the essential workers they are by giving them the training and support they deserve.
Now is the time to ensure our education system is stronger than it was before the pandemic. That work starts with teachers.
Brett Peiser is CEO of Uncommon Schools, a public charter school network in the Northeast.