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The final days of the school year, once students are out of the building, is a busy time for K-12 educators. There is a special rhythm to wrapping up one year and prepping classrooms for the summer months: taking down bulletin boards, finalizing student grade reports, filing lesson plans, packing up activities, making notes for the year to come. For far too many teachers each June, however, it is the final time they go through these year-end routines so familiar to the profession.

We are losing teachers from the profession at an alarming rate, and we cannot recruit enough new ones to fill the current need, much less to advance our children and schools to a new level of quality and excellence. This is a national trend and an especially acute one in Arizona.

What solutions might we find if we listen carefully to teachers about their experiences in the profession? What keeps them in it? What changes do they advocate?

Earlier this year, on January 7, community and corporate leaders convened for the Let’s Talk Ed summit focused on the teacher workforce crisis in Arizona. It was a packed agenda and speaker after speaker cited extensive data related to the teacher shortage issue. Mid-way through the line-up of slide presentations by researchers, politicians, and organizational leaders sharing dire statistics and urging action, there was a panel of teacher awardees. The panel was an inspirational breather from the external ‘experts’ and allowed participants to hear from the experts on the inside.

The teachers’ voices added a human element to the ‘teacher workforce’ and gave the audience a candid look at the daily work of the profession. They spoke from the heart about their craft, their students, and their colleagues. They were an inspiring reminder that there are amazing educators throughout our schools and our community – and compelling proof of all that the earlier presentations had advocated for: We need more outstanding veteran teachers to stay in the field; every student in every year of school should have an outstanding teacher; teachers are highly trained and highly skilled professionals; teachers should be compensated competitively to attract and retain the best.

Key messages I heard when listening to the teacher panelists echoed those I have heard from colleagues during my decades in the profession:

  1. Good teachers never stop learning. A commitment to self-reflection and a willingness to learn and keep learning throughout one’s career were key traits for longevity and excellence in the profession.
  2. The support of one’s colleagues is key to success. They echoed the ‘it takes a village’ theme when talking about student success and saw themselves as part of an essential network of educators in their schools.
  3. Students are at the center. It was clear from the stories they shared that they knew their students on a personal level and cared deeply about their well-being. They approached lesson planning in a way that fostered in students a love of learning and engaged students in acquiring new skills and knowledge. They had a shared sense of purpose about why they teach and what drives them to do it well: because kids matter – all kids matter.
  4. Teacher time is incredibly limited and constrained. One awardee even advised those entering the profession to plan carefully for bathroom breaks. In what other profession would a panel of award-winning veterans think to mention the topic of bathroom breaks?
  5. Teaching is really hard. The better we get, the easier it looks. But it’s still really hard. Being an educator is a complex endeavor that requires training, mentoring, and resources. Ironically, those who teach well make it look smooth and easy, belying the effort that goes into the preparation and execution each day and giving the public the impression that it ‘just comes naturally.’

What are a few of the demands we might draw from these reflections? Schools provide quality professional development, opportunities for collaboration with colleagues, and developmentally appropriate support for teachers along the continuum of their career. The precious resource of time during the school day is allocated in more creative and flexible ways that prioritize student learning and teacher autonomy. The public increases their awareness about what the job entails and demonstrates more respect for those who pursue it.

And what didn’t we hear from the panelists? There was no talk of salaries or funding frustrations. Don’t doubt that they exist, but there are plenty of other areas to address related to job satisfaction for teachers that aren’t directly related to money. What immediate next steps can we take, while simultaneously engaging in the ongoing challenge of pushing for education funding increases from our state legislators?

The research was the backdrop. In the foreground were three teachers. There are many more like them. We absolutely need to compensate them fairly, and we also need to create conditions that better support their work. At the same time, we have an urgent need to recruit many more like them to the profession – and listen to what they have to say.