What Our Teachers Deserve: How To Keep New Jersey Teachers In Their Profession

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Dr. Liz Brooke is Chief Learning Officer for Lexia Learning. She guides the pedagogical approach and research strategy for Lexia’s personalized literacy programs.

While students have returned to classrooms and school life is beginning to resemble pre-pandemic times, the disruptions to education are still being acutely felt.

According to the New Jersey Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund, nearly 4,000 teachers retired in New Jersey last year, up about 10% from the previous year. Across the U.S., The National Education Association reported that 55% of educators are ready to leave the field sooner than they had planned. School officials worry about a potential exodus in New Jersey. Even before the pandemic, New Jersey, like many other states across the U.S., faced an educator shortage.

Now, a spotlight has been cast on these shortages. Research has proven teachers are the most critical factor in students’ learning success in the classroom, so what can we do to make sure they feel supported? 

I started my career as a teacher, and it remains one of the hardest jobs I’ve held throughout my two-decades-long career in the education industry. It’s no surprise that teachers are deciding that the combined demands and strains of the job are simply not worth sacrificing their physical and mental health. 

What’s driving educators out of the classroom can be summarized as a lack of respect, remuneration, and remote-fatigue-recovery. Here are three considerations for schools to attract and retain teachers, while also ensuring continuity of student education. 

RESPECT

Having little voice or autonomy, feeling micromanaged and undermined in academic decisions that directly impact their effectiveness in the classroom topped the list of “whys” of the teacher exodus. In recent surveys, up to two-thirds of teachers reported they have little or no influence over what they teach or what instructional materials are used. They don’t feel recognized for their contributions or supported by their administrators.

Respect, appreciation, and acknowledgment for teachers’ experience, professionalism and hard work would go a long way to slowing the teacher exodus. Input into curriculum and administrative support for their ideas would also be helpful.

REMUNERATION

Teachers earned an average of 21 percent less than their comparable peers in 2018, a gap that has grown nonstop for more than 20 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute. CNBC reported that U.S. educators are paid less than their counterparts in Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and Ireland. Even though the state of New Jersey ranks seventh in the U.S. for teacher pay, as reported by the National Education Association, the average educator pay has failed to keep up with inflation since 2012-13. In the U.S., teachers are about 30% more likely to work a second job compared with their peers in other professions, according to the Center For American Progress.

Low pay and high stress come with the job, but it was the overwhelming workloads, lack of work-life balance and frustrations in connecting with students remotely that pushed low pay to the top of the bridge-too-far list. These factors coupled with the social-emotional challenges many students are facing plus disciplinary issues are increasing the burdens teachers are now facing, and their compensation has failed to keep up.  

Researchers have found a clear correlation between higher salaries and retention, all other things being equal. It is promising to see that some U.S. states have begun implementing raises for teachers, a trend that hopefully gains traction broadly.  

RECOVERY

Teachers were overburdened and beleaguered before the pandemic. The moves to and from remote, hybrid, and now to in-person learning have only added to their frustration. All three of these models require different skills. The technology challenges and unfamiliarity with distance learning were leading frustrations for teachers.

However, many teachers rose to the challenge during the pandemic and are just ready for a break. Because of the difficulties of the last two years, we now know that physical and mental health are non-negotiable.

There’s an opportunity for schools and districts to examine the support systems, or lack thereof, in place for teachers and how to better drive ongoing mentorship and professional development programs.

In the meantime, as more teachers leave the profession, those that remain are being asked to do even more. To maintain continuity for students while also easing the burden on educators, schools need to consider creative solutions like tapping special area teachers (i.e., music, art, P.E., etc.) to spend one hour of their day supporting classroom teachers during the reading block by listening to students read or using scripted lessons with a small group of students, etc. Using a scaffolded approach, leveraging special area teachers in this way complements other reading education but does not require a ton of extra training for educators. Other considerations could include taping local retired teachers to serve as substitutes and bringing in student teachers from local colleges to help fill gaps.

A CALL FOR CHANGE

Despite these challenges, I am optimistic that there is a consensus that change is needed. It will take the best minds in our communities to solve this crisis in teaching. Collaboration between businesses and legislators, parents and communities, universities and nonprofits is critical.

At Lexia, we see literacy as the foundation for all learning, because literacy can and should be for all. As an education company, we have an opportunity to help create a more equitable, safe, diverse environment for our students, and an empowering teaching experience for teachers.

Organizations like Lexia can use the power of their platforms to celebrate and affirm teachers; advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, provide recognition for their contribution; and give them autonomy to manage their own classrooms.

It’s time to ask new questions: what can state and federal legislators do to increase funding for teacher salaries beyond the three years of ESSER recovery funds? What can be done to increase the number of qualified people selecting the education field as a career option and how can we streamline the teacher certification process across state lines? If we want the best and the brightest people to choose teaching as a career, then we have to create a new vision for teaching with matching compensation. 

Schools and districts can help retain teachers by providing significant professional learning opportunities that shape a career path. Digital programs are only tools, but they can empower educators with data that blends with teacher led instruction. These tools require good pedagogy, curriculum, and experienced teachers to bring them to life for learning success. 

Let’s use technology for what it does best — personalizing students’ learning paths to meet the needs of every learner — so that teachers can focus on building relationships with their students to make them feel seen and heard and use the data from an online program to help further personalize their teacher-led lessons/instruction.

Teachers have an awesome responsibility. As a society, we depend on good teachers to help guide the next generation of citizens. As the demands for our teachers grow, so must the compensation for the job. They deserve the best support we can offer them as a wider community of legislators, education leaders, parents, businesses and nonprofit organizations coming together for a critical cause.

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