The greatest threat to education

by Dr. Mark Gudgel

By November, when the sun rises later – long after I’ve arrived at school each morning – most days I no longer bother to tie a necktie or even button up a shirt, reverting instead to polo shirts or, on Fridays, even more casual attire.

This isn’t necessarily how I want to dress as a teacher, but it becomes a necessary act: the sparing of precious time and the conservation of critical energy that I know I’ll need later in the day when I am asked, or rather, told, that I will be teaching German, Statistics, Robotics or Personal Finance.

I am an English teacher, but so far this school year I’ve “taught” Physics, Geometry, American History, Algebra, Spanish and countless other classes – none of which I’m even remotely qualified to teach. (Last week, the lesson plan for a Human Growth and Development class was titled “The dangers of sexual activity,” and you’re damn right that I nearly walked right back out.)

By November, I’d covered 20 different classes already this year, and that’s far fewer than many of my colleagues whose plan periods fall on the last block of the day when teachers – especially coaches like me – are more likely to be gone. By the time you read this in early December, the number could easily have doubled, but I’ll have given up on counting.

Very little of what I have to say on this topic is likely to qualify as new information for most readers of The Voice. And yet I think many of our buildings and districts feel as if they exist largely in isolation from one another. My hope is that sharing my experiences, outlining this problem as I understand it, and suggesting what I consider to be an almost obvious solution, may help some colleagues be better able to do similarly, and also to remind you that you are not alone. Every time I speak to teachers about this issue, the commonalities of what we face each day is reinforced for me, and so I write this in solidarity with teachers and educational professionals across our state and well beyond.

The teach…er…staff shortage

I remember back in teachers’ college at UNL, all the rumblings about the looming shortage in our profession. Then I remember graduating, not immediately finding work, and wondering if perhaps the rumors had been blown out of proportion.

Instead, it seems, the play just took a little longer to develop than some had initially suspected. The reality today is grim. The average career of a teacher is said to last five years, while the rate of retirement seems to far exceed the number of people entering the profession.

Many, if not most, of our schools are not staffed at 100%. Not only did the teacher shortage eventually arrive, but now that I have a front row seat from which to view it, it is far worse than anything I could have imagined as an undergrad.

As if this weren’t enough, the problem is compounded exponentially by the fact that the shortage is in no way limited to teachers. Across the country, as right here in Nebraska, we find that schools do not have enough bus drivers to get kids to school on time, enough cafeteria workers to keep them fed, enough security to keep them safe, or enough custodians to keep facilities clean and operational.

A story from Texas got my attention last week: a group of fathers began serving as additional security at their kids’ school, and it had a profoundly positive impact on building culture. While the story is certainly touching, it does little in the way of offering a tenable solution that could effectively be implemented on a nationwide scale. The most obvious and painful shortage, however, is that of substitute teachers.

The issue of coverage

Coverage is essentially the act of being volun-told that you’ll teach an absent colleague’s class during your plan period because a substitute teacher was not available. This information is typically delivered day-of, sometimes mere minutes before the class begins.

I have spoken with teachers across the country about this issue, and it’s rare that I encounter someone who has yet to have this experience. Coverage looks a little different depending on where you are, but it often plays out something like this:

  • Step One: Arrive at your school, enthusiastic, optimistic, and ready to improve the lives of young people.
  • Step Two: Get an email or a note informing you that in addition to your own job you’ll also be doing someone else’s during the time that had previously been set aside for you to plan lessons, grade papers, call parents, meet with students, and pee.
  • Step Three: Arrive in an unfamiliar classroom and attempt to deliver a lesson in a content area you have never studied to children with whom you have little or no rapport.
  • Step Four: Contemplate quitting your job each time this happens.
  • Step Five: Do it all over again tomorrow.

The shortage of substitute teachers is the issue that contributes most directly to this problem, which I would speculate may be the thing driving more teachers out of our profession than any other single factor.

The number of substitutes who are available and willing to work in a pandemic has understandably dwindled, but there’s no reason to believe that when the pandemic one day ends the shortage will be resolved. In fact, the pandemic may have been the tipping point for many substitute teachers, but the crux of the issue for subs is the same as it is for full-time educators.

Put simply, we cannot proceed to require educators, full-time or substitute, to be educated as professionals and to conduct themselves as professionals while simultaneously refusing to compensate them as professionals. An article published on the NEA webpage in October provides a solid overview of the problem, while the comments section bolsters the argument that this issue is indeed nationwide.

Why is coverage such a threat?

At the heart of the issue is the depressing reality that when we force teachers to cover like this on a regular basis, we deprive them of their ability to do their own jobs at the highest level.

When I cover during my plan period, the papers I was going to grade and the timely feedback I hoped to provide get pushed aside. My lessons don’t get planned, so I don’t teach as well as I could have otherwise. I miss IEP meetings that were scheduled around my plan time. I can’t meet with students to talk about their issues, help them apply for scholarships or assist them with their homework, nor can I call their parents to tell them about the amazing thing they said in class that day or the terrific work they’re doing.

Coverage makes us worse teachers in ways that are painfully obvious to our well-trained eyes, and as a direct result, it shortens our longevity in the field. Teachers are proud and talented artists, and education is the bedrock of our society. We know what amazing teaching looks like and how important it is. If the current state of affairs won’t allow us to be excellent at our jobs, it can cause us to wonder where else we might be better able to flourish.

Based on countless conversations with colleagues and peers, I suspect that the coverage epidemic is responsible for more retirements and resignations from teaching than any other single factor in recent history.

In light of all of this, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to suggest that we may well be witnessing the slow death of education, a system burning to the ground before our eyes. The already crushing teacher shortage has been juxtaposed next to shortages of all other school staff in such a way that it leaves us unable to be effective, constantly scrambling, always behind and evacuating the profession as if it were a house ablaze.

But there is hope.

How can we fix this – and what if we don’t?

I want to emphasize that this is not an issue specific to my school, nor to my district. In fact, despite Gov. Ricketts’ best attempts to undermine public education at every turn, this isn’t even a Nebraska-Nice problem. Rather, the issue is at least nationwide, though I hear enough credible grumblings from friends in Europe and Africa to believe that perhaps it extends well beyond our national boundaries.

In my building, it is not at all uncommon for our principal to cover classes, nor is it out of the ordinary to see her manning the front security desk or providing extra supervision in our crowded hallways at critical times. I admire and respect her and our many other administrators who, though they could plausibly find excuses not to be a part of the solution, nevertheless help shoulder a burden of staff shortages which seems only to grow more and more immense with every passing day.

In the end, however, adding every administrator in the building to the coverage rotation only succeeds in applying a bandage to a wound that we all realize by now is going to require major surgery. To borrow a line from Lin Manuel, “If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out from inside the house.”

The good news, at least in my opinion, is that this is one of the few problems in the world that can be solved, at least in large part, with money – assuming we can get those outside the burning house to agree to adequately fund the fire brigade.

Pay substitute teaches, pay custodians, security, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other vital school personnel a livable wage with real benefits, and we might be able to put this fire out before the house comes down entirely.

Despite the immense cost and difficulty of earning a Juris Doctorate, there is zero risk of the world ever running out of lawyers. If we want to save public education, then simply put, teachers and school staff must be as well compensated as are those in the professions we have prepared them to do. Then, and only then, will more of our students seriously consider pursuing the critical vocations that they see us fighting harder and harder to perform each day. (This is the part where you call your representative.)

Another day of coverage

As I sit at my desk, attempting to put to words precisely why this is such a problem and how I think we might effectively address it, Microsoft Office pings me. It’s my curriculum specialist, and the subject line of the email is “Coverage.” Today, instead of planning my own lessons or grading my students’ responses to Night, I will be teaching about…let’s take a look here… plants and propagation. I scan the lesson plans. Something about a tomato, looks like a video, emphasis on “no greenhouse today” – we have a greenhouse? – and then a unit assessment over the impact of photosynthesis on the climate.  

A few of these terms are vaguely familiar to me, perhaps from Mr. Powell’s 10th grade biology class, but for God’s sake I’m an English teacher. Terrific, I think sardonically. Then I log into my calendar and block off some time to start updating my résumé.

Dr. Mark Gudgel is an 18-year veteran of teaching in Nebraska’s public schools. His latest book, Think Higher Feel Deeper: Holocaust Education in the Secondary Classroom, was released by Teachers College Press this fall. Gudgel lives in Omaha with his wife and their two children.