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Where are the teachers?

Society faces a shortage that will take a terrible toll

Issue: "The Dutch culture of death," May 23, 1998

If you were a school administrator as springtime dissolves into summer vacation, what do you guess might be your most perplexing challenge? Setting up security points to make sure no sixth-graders will tote guns into school next September? Deciding whether your Anglo students should be required to take Spanish early, or if your Hispanic students should be permitted to skip English and do their main work in Español? Figuring out how to handle the pregnant 11th-grader who until now has been a prize honor student? All those and similarly bewildering issues confront administrators, to be sure. But according to what I'm hearing from various sources, perhaps the toughest challenge of all for educators across the country is ever so much simpler-and ever so much more profound: Where are the qualified teachers? In a setting where there's almost always been a labor surplus, the teacher shortage is something of a surprise. Indeed, one reason teacher salaries have always been on the distinctly low side is that there's always been such an ample supply of men and women not just willing but eager to teach. Now there's evidence that era may be ending. Some school districts have dispatched recruiters to go on nationwide searches, and a few of those headhunters have been armed with fat checkbooks allowing them to issue signing bonuses for their recruits. All this could change the face of institutional education. In the public sector, it promises to become a sharp blow to the midsection just when the system is already staggering because of other factors. This bump, however, will be dramatically more severe simply because teachers are the cushion between the system and all its others problems. If the teachers are inexperienced-or, more dramatically, not even there-that cushion is reduced, and the other problems take their toll that much sooner and that much more acutely. By some estimates, the nation's public-school classrooms could be 15,000-20,000 short of qualified teachers this fall. But "qualified" is a relative term. What administrator would not like to have teachers who are educationally, behaviorally, philosophically, and volitionally equipped to take on the hard task of teaching? But sooner or later, deficits in all four of those areas had to start catching up: The educational deficit. Problems in basic reading and elementary math, unfortunately, don't stay put. They get passed along year after year. By and by, a first-grade reading deficiency becomes a reading problem for a college freshman-and finally the issue is translated into a teacher with a deficiency standing in front of the next generation of first-graders. The behavioral deficit. Guns at school, to be sure, are still an exceptional occurrence. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Behavior has gone downhill. Basic manners are bad, but that's just the surface issue revealing a much more serious problem underneath. It's serious enough to have a whole generation of kids with bad behavior problems. Now you can add to it a whole generation of young adults who are supposed to be in charge. It's a scary picture. The worldview deficit. It's WORLD magazine's assumption, of course, that only a biblical worldview includes the kind of glue ultimately needed to hold a society together. But short of that, there are stop-gap worldviews that God seems to have allowed to keep relative order and tranquillity in human society. Such worldviews typically hold, at least, to some kinds of absolutes. Yet what we have now is a whole generation taught from their earliest days that there are no absolutes. Whether teachers can even keep order in such contexts, much less teach anything coherently, is a huge question. The commitment deficit. Most of us have grown up owing big debts to that wonderful cadre of people who committed themselves, at significant personal cost, to lives of teaching. The hours were long and hard, and the pay was modest. But the reward of seeing a few ideals and values replicated in another person was very often sufficient to keep an ample supply of teachers available as the older generation died off. Such continuity, however, assumes there are such bedrock ideals and values to prompt such commitment. A society without ideals and values finds fewer and fewer people ready to strike such a bargain. The first result will not be classrooms without teachers. Come next September, only a few lecterns will be physically vacant. What will happen instead is that those doing the hiring will be forced to settle for more and more compromises as they work through the four-point checklist mentioned above. Administrators will find candidates who are academically equipped but who are flops at controlling a classroom. Or prospects who relate well to kids but have no enduring vision of what life is about. Or they'll find those who do well for a year or two and then head for some other vocation. But in any case, the educational enterprise will be weakened because almost no one shows up who can do it all. It isn't just in the public schools that such deficits are beginning to appear. Christian and private-school administrators tell me that they too sense some of the same troubling patterns in their own continuing search for good teachers. And I can't think of another shortage that will take a bigger toll.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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