A former student of Michael Uhlmann pays tribute to his late friend and mentor.
The culture of teaching has become corporatized and unappealing.
As “Back to School” season descends upon America, the national teacher shortage is becoming more acute. Across the country, school districts are scrambling to fill open positions, and many of them are having to accommodate uncertified teachers and pay for their “fast-track” alternative certification programs. This has even been the case in my own well-heeled school district. Only a few years ago, administrators could demand that applicants be fully certified and have multiple years of teaching experience; now, many of the new aspirants are fresh out of college with no experience in the classroom beyond their own days of being a student at one point.
Many attribute the shortage to the shock of the school closures due to the pandemic. Teachers were forced to rely on Zoom, create online courses, and maintain a cool head despite the chaos happening all around them. For at least a year and a half, many schools went into “survivor mode,” simply doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy despite it all. But the pandemic has come and gone, and the shortage is getting worse. Moreover, the shortage was already happening well before the school closures, suggesting deeper problems in the teaching profession.
Leftists insist, as they always do, that lack of money is the main problem. No matter the situation, progressive commentators always clamor for more funding though they ignore the data that the mediocre quality of education in most schools seems to remain constant regardless of funding.
A novel reason for the teacher shortage is “moral injury.” According to a recent essay in the progressive journal The American Prospect, moral injury is the result of working in a stressful, inequitable, and unjust environment. As one moral injury victim Annie Phan explains, “becoming a teacher to help students, only to be forced to participate in a system that fails them at every turn, creates moral injury.” This is a major issue in some areas, as demonstrated in a study of teachers showing that “80 percent of participants were impacted by moral transgressions committed by others, 68 percent experienced some sort of betrayal of their own morals, and 45 percent committed actions that transgressed their values.”
All this sounds terrible until one considers the individuals who would be susceptible to moral injury. If people enter teaching with utopian ideals that prioritize equity, engagement, and inclusivity, they will be sorely disappointed by the reality that prevails in public schools. Students are not equal, many of them hate school, and few of them care about fighting systemic privilege or bigotry.
In addition to school systems supposedly failing their students, moral injury evidently includes “the right-wing assault on public education across red states. Teachers there are now commonly required to out their trans students, or teach bunk history.” Again, this mischaracterization of legitimate parental concerns about woke indoctrination says more about the teachers’ politics than it does about their actual job situation. Only rabid social justice warriors hoping to use their classroom as a platform for radical views risk uncomfortable confrontations with angry parents who oppose the transformation of American schools into ideological training camps.
If one goes into teaching, as I did, knowing that his job is to teach kids of all backgrounds how to think, not what to think, then reality won’t be so overwhelming. In truth, after 15 years teaching high school English, the main lessons that I’ve learned are that success comes in different forms; teaching is all about relationships; and systems (including progressive ones that are well funded) are limited in what they can do to fix social problems. Even with all the training and resources in the world, I can’t save every student; I can only do my best. Recognizing this truth doesn’t qualify as moral injury, but rather serves as an occasion for humility.
There’s still something to be said about the stress teachers experience that really does lead to burnout and turnover. But it’s not the social injustice that gets to them, nor is it the workload, but rather the weird corporate culture that now obtains in most schools. For the past few decades, as they have become bigger and more centralized, schools have become less about enabling inspired professionals to work their magic in the classroom and turning immature young people into lifelong learners, and more about training armies of midwit bureaucrats to implement pedagogical gimmicks upon a captive audience of young people.
This has always been difficult for me to articulate to people outside of education, but Matthew Crawford’s bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft does a fine job describing how this works. Although he mainly focuses on the absurdities of corporate culture and “knowledge work,” what he says equally applies to most schools and the administrators running them: “the world of managers resembles that of Soviet bureaucrats, who had to negotiate reality without public recourse to language that could capture it…. When a manager’s success is predicated on the manipulation of language for the sake of avoiding responsibility, reward and blame come untethered from good faith effort.”
Teachers are increasingly evaluated not by what they do or what they know, but by how well they fit with the culture and work with others. Consequently, an administrator’s main job is to enforce conformity to the dictates of the district’s central office. For their part, instead of being trusted to do what’s right for their students, teachers are forced to do all their work through committees—though these groups are given upbeat euphemisms like “Professional Learning Communities (PLCs),” “clusters,” “cadres,” “teams,” or even “families.” Needless to say, there is immense pressure to play nice, not deviate from the script, and avoid rocking any boats.
For all the problems it’s causing school districts now, one good thing about the teacher shortage is that it has momentarily relaxed this cloying corporate culture. Principals can’t afford to lose more teachers, so many of them have stopped playing the mind games of middle management. Moreover, parents have become more vigilant with their children’s learning, and they will speak up if a teacher is wasting time with pointless activities recommended by an unaccountable committee. Besides, in most schools right now, administrators have much bigger problems to address than a teacher going rogue by assessing their students’ knowledge with a quiz instead of a group activity.
My modest proposal to fix the teacher shortage is to restore teacher autonomy and make school culture less corporate. Reducing meetings and committees, maintaining learning standards through periodic objective assessments, and supporting teachers through concrete action instead of empty corporate platitudes would all be important steps toward rehumanizing school. But the best (and most controversial) way to restore teacher autonomy is by compensating merit. Although calculating a teacher’s effectiveness is difficult, it’s not impossible, and there needs to be some kind of incentive for doing one’s best. Otherwise, achievement in the classroom will depend solely on the goodwill of the teacher as well as the goodwill of the students, neither of whom may or may not want to work harder than they have to.
As it stands, there isn’t much to recommend the teaching profession. It doesn’t pay very well, it’s hard work, and one doesn’t even have much freedom or authority. At most, people will enter the profession because of the extra time off and relative job security—features that attract society’s most lazy and incompetent, not its best and brightest. Parents who worry about their children’s education will need to start trusting and rewarding their good teachers with more freedom and better pay tied to performance. Otherwise they can expect to find their neighborhood schools being increasingly staffed with long-term substitutes and unqualified loafers who don’t know how to teach.
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