Top Five Actions to Stop the Teacher Exodus During COVID and Beyond


 
 
 
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, schools across the United States are on the brink of collapse
 
There is a classroom teacher shortage. 
 
There is a substitute teacher shortage.  
 
There is a bus driver shortage
 
There is a special education aide shortage.  
 
The people we depend on to staff our public schools are running away in droves.  
 
It’s a clear supply and demand issue that calls for deep structural changes.  
 
However, it’s not really new. We’ve needed better compensation and treatment of school employees for decades, but our policymakers have been extremely resistant to do anything about it.   
 
Instead, they’ve given away our tax dollars to corporations through charter and voucher school initiatives. They’ve siphoned funding to pay for more standardized testing, teaching to the test, and ed tech software.  
 
But the people who actually do the work of educating our youth. We’ve left them out in the cold.  
 
Now with the smoldering pandemic and increased impacts on the health, safety and well-being of teachers and other staff, the exodus has merely intensified.  
 
Frankly, I’m not holding my breath for lawmakers to finally get off their collective asses.  
 
We need a popular, national movement demanding action from our state and federal governments. However, in the meantime, there are several things our local school districts can do to stem the tide of educators fleeing the profession.
 
These are simple, cheap and common sense methods to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom and weather the storm.  
 
However, let me be clear. None of these can solve the problem, alone. And even ALL of these will not stop the long-term flight of educators from our schools without better salaries and treatment.  
 


1)    Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks 
 


The list of tasks an average teacher is expected to accomplish every day is completely unrealistic.  
 
Think about it. Just to get through a normal day teachers need to provide instruction, discipline students, grade papers, facilitate classwork, troubleshoot technology, provide written and verbal feedback, counsel disputes, role model correct behavior, monitor the halls, lunches, breakfasts and unstructured time, meet with co-workers, follow Individual Education Plans, scaffold lessons for different learners and learning styles…  
 
The list is truly staggering. 
 
And it never stops. 
 
Researchers have estimated that on average teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That’s about 4 decisions a minute. 
 
No one can keep up that pace, day-in, day-out, without strain. No one can do it without their work suffering.  
 
If we truly want to help teachers feel empowered to stay in the profession, we need to reduce the burden. And the best way to do that is to eliminate everything unnecessary from their plates. 

That means no staff meeting just to have a staff meeting. No shotgun scattered initiatives that teachers are expected to execute and we’ll see what will stick. No reams of paperwork. No professional development that wasn’t specifically requested by teachers or is demonstrably useful.

Nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.

 
2) No Formal Lesson Plans

The number one offender is formal lesson plans.  
 
I’m not saying we should tell teachers they don’t have to plan what they’re doing in their classes. I’m not sure how an educator could realistically enter a classroom of students and just wing it.  
 
However, the process of writing and handing in formal lesson plans is absolutely unnecessary. 
 
Teachers gain nothing from writing detailed plans about what they expect to do in their classes complete with reference to Common Core Academic Standards. They gain nothing from acting as subordinates to an all knowing administrator who probably has not been trained in their curriculum nor has their classroom experience teaching it.  
 
For educators with at least 3-5 years under their belts, formal lesson plans are nothing but an invitation to micromanagement.  
 
Should administrators monitor what their teachers are doing? Absolutely. But the best way to do that is to actually observe the teacher in the classroom doing the work. And to conference with the teacher before and after the observation with the goal of understanding what they’re doing and how to best help them improve.  
 
Forcing teachers to set aside time from their already overburdened schedules to fill out lesson plans that administrators don’t have time to read and (frankly) probably don’t have the training or experience to fully comprehend is top down managerial madness.  
 


 
3)    More Planning Time 

Teachers need time to plan.  

It’s pathetic that I actually have to explain this.  

Education doesn’t just happen.

Parents need called. Papers need graded. Lessons need strategized. IEP’s need to be read, understood and put into practice.

All this can only happen within a temporal framework. If you don’t give teachers that framework – those minutes and hours – you’re just expecting they’ll do it at home, after school or some other time that will have to be stolen from their own families, robbed from their own needs and down time.

Every administrator on the planet preaches the need for self-care, but few actually offer the time to make it a reality.

Even if we could discover exactly how much time was necessary for every teacher to get everything done in a given day – that wouldn’t be enough time. Because teachers are human beings. We need time to process, to evaluate, to think and, yes, to rest.

I know sometimes I have to stop wrestling with a problem I’m having in class because I’m getting nowhere. After two decades in the classroom I’ve learned that sometimes you have to give your brain a rest and approach a problem again later from a different vantage point.

I need to read a scholarly article or even for pleasure. I need to watch YouTube videos that may be helpful to my students. I need to get up and go for a walk, perhaps even just socialize for a moment with my coworkers.

None of that is time wasted because my brain is still working. My unconscious is still trying untie the Gordian knot of my workday and when I finally sit down to revisit the issue, I often find it looser and more easily handled.

Administrators must prioritize teacher planning time.

There is no simpler way to put it.

Do not ask your teacher to sub. Do not ask them to attend meetings. Do not ask them to help you plan building wide initiatives – UNLESS you can guarantee it won’t interfere with their plans.


I know this is difficult right now with so many staff falling ill or being so plowed under that they simply can’t make it to work.

However, the more you push them to give up their plans, the more you diminish returns.

Not only will their work suffer but so will their health and willingness to continue on the job.

Some districts are finding creative ways to increase planning time such as releasing students early one day a week. We did that at my district last year and it was extremely helpful to meet all the additional duties required just to keep our building open. However, as the new school year dawned and decision makers decided to simply ignore continuing pandemic issues, this time went away.

Most teachers are in the profession because it’s a calling. They care about doing the best job they can for their students.

If you take away their ability to do that, why would they stay?

 
 


4) Better Communication/ Better COVID Safety  

Communication is a two way street.

You can’t have one person telling everyone else what to do and expect to have a good working relationship.

Administrators may get to make the final decision, but they need to listen to what their teachers tell them and take that into account before doing so.

This means setting aside the proper time to hear what your staff has to say.

Many administrators don’t want to do that because things can devolve into a series of complaints. But you know what? TOUGH.

It is your job to listen to those complaints and take them seriously.

Sometimes just allowing your staff to voice their concerns is helpful all in itself. Sometimes offering them space to speak sparks solutions to problems – and a whole room full of experienced, dedicated educators can solve any problem better than one or two managers locked away in the office.

However, not only do administrators need to listen, they need to speak.

When issues crop up, they need to make sure the staff is aware of what is happening.

This is especially true during the pandemic.

We are so sick of half truths about who has Covid, who is quarantined, what is being done to keep us safe, etc.

No child should return to the classroom after a negative COVID test without the teacher already being appraised.

No child should be placed in quarantine without the teachers knowledge.

No teacher with a prior medical condition should have to serve lunch duty while students eat unmasked.

Safety protocols should be the product of the entire staff’s input. If everyone doesn’t feel safe, no one feels safe.

 


5) Respect 


 
 This is really the bottom line.

Teachers need to feel respected.

We need to know that administrators and school board members understand our struggles and are on our side.

I don’t mean taking a day or even one week out of the year to celebrate Teacher Appreciation. I don’t mean free donuts or coupons to Sam’s Club. I don’t even mean a mug with an inspirational message.

I’m talking about every day – day-in, day-out – respect for teachers.

No union bashing.

No snide comments at school board meetings.

No gossipy whispering in the community.

Being a teacher should mean something to district leaders. And they should prove it in every thing they do.

The items I mentioned here go some ways to showing that respect.

Eliminating unnecessary tasks, not requiring formal lesson plans, respecting our planning time, better communicating and safety measures are all necessary to keeping your teachers in the classroom.

But they are not sufficient.

As a nation we need to change our attitude and treatment of teachers.

No profession exists without them. They create every other job that exists.

We need to start paying them accordingly. We need to start treating them as important as they are. We need to ensure that they have the time, tools and satisfaction necessary to be the best they can be.

No district can do that alone. No school director or administrator can do that.

But these are some ways you can start.


 

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Lesson Plans Are a Complete Waste of Time     

Lesson plans are a complete waste of time. 

There. I said it.   

Few demands get under the skin of classroom teachers more than being told to hand in detailed lesson plans.  

It’s not that teachers don’t need to plan.  

Planning is an essential part of the job. 

Every day before students come in, you decide which activities, assignments and discussions would be effective for you and your students.   

However, that’s personal, idiosyncratic and informal. It’s the FORMAL lesson plans that have next to nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom.

I’m talking about the kind with detailed objectives often written in behavioral terms (i.e. Students Will Be Able To…), essential questions that are supposed to link your units into cohesive blocks, explicit reference to the formative and summative assessments you plan to give and exhaustive reference to every Common Core Academic Standard non-educators ever wrote to sell text books, workbooks, software and other boondoggles.


 
They are simply busy work – useless paper that is often filed away in the office and never seen again.  


 
Certain kinds of principals – and we know who you are – have checklists of every teacher in the building and simply mark off your name to designate that you turned in your lesson plans like a good doggie. 


 
But even worse are administrators who read every word and send you pages of comments asking you to change this or that so it more closely adheres to the Common Core Academic Standards. As if parroting a bunch of shoddy benchmarks made by standardized testing companies is going to have any real effect on classroom practices. 


 
Either way it’s an exercise in futility. 


 
Whether administrators pour over these plans or just file them away, making teachers hand them in every week has nothing to do with improving teacher effectiveness or even making us more reflective and adventurous educators. It’s about administrators justifying their own jobs.  


 
It’s like saying, “Look what a tough principal I am! I make my teachers hand in their lesson plans. I don’t let them get away with anything!” 


 
And perhaps that’s one of the things that really irritates educators – this idea that we need taskmasters set over us to ensure we’re actually teaching. 

If principals were really worried about that, it would be better for all involved if they just poked their heads into our classrooms more often and actually observed what we are doing.


 
Here’s a dirty little secret about education – No one gets into this profession to sit behind a desk with their feet up. 


 
If they do, they soon realize that teaching isn’t the place for them. There is so much we have to do everyday – from grading papers, to counseling students, to calling parents, to scaffolding group work, tutoring, mentoring, modeling, lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension – and that’s before we even begin to talk about teaching and planning! 


 
We don’t have time to write up a detailed plan of what we think we’ll be doing in class every single day with an equally detailed justification for everything we’ll do! 


 
Because we know we’ll never actually use it in the classroom! 


 
The very idea of lesson plans is antithetical to 90% of classroom practice. 


 
Teaching isn’t something you can sit back and plan and then recreate with 100% fidelity day-in, day-out.

 


 
When you’re there in front of students, you need to use your natural empiricism to tell what the needs are of your students on a given day at a given time.  


 
Today we may need to go back and reteach yesterday’s lesson. Or we may have to jump right back into a discussion we were having last week. Or we may need to switch tacks and focus on something else so students can calm down or won’t get frustrated.  


 
The reality of the classroom determines what a good educator does inside it. And this cannot accurately be guessed at from a distance of time and/or space.  


 
Sure, as a language arts teacher I may know I want to teach vocabulary skills, or complete sentence construction, reading comprehension or anything else. I can pick out my texts and my assignments, figure out which activities would best get across the idea, what kind of practice could be useful, etc. But HOW all that comes together is more of an art than a science.  


 
And the more experienced you are as a teacher and the better you know your students, the more effectively you’ll be able to meet the needs of a class of students on a given day.  


 
Because you aren’t teaching widgets. You’re teaching people. And people resist the most rigid of plans.  


 
Moreover, the need to justify every move you make has a chilling effect on what you’re willing to do.  


 
Teachers need the freedom to experiment – to try new things and see how they work.  


 
If you have to stop and justify every action for an authority figure, you’ll only do the things you already know will work – or at least the things you feel most confident that you can explain. 


 
Teachers need to be free to try something and not be able to codify why they’re doing it at the moment. Only later, perhaps at the end of the day, can it be helpful to sit back and reflect on what you did and judge for yourself whether it was effective and worth repeating.  


 
But that’s where the emphasis needs to be – on you as the teacher and your students as a class.  


 
YOU get to decide the effectiveness of your teaching – not your principal, not an administrator in central office or the superintendent. YOU. 

That’s because you’re the expert here.


 
Your administrator may not even be trained in your discipline. How’s a gym teacher going to evaluate language arts? How’s an elementary special education teacher going to evaluate calculus?  


 
And it’s even worse when compounded by experience – or perhaps I should say inexperience.  


 
Most principals only taught for a handful of years before becoming administrators. And many of them haven’t even had much time to figure out how best to BE administrators.  


 
Yet our warped work culture puts them in charge of the actual professionals in the classroom – the classroom teachers – and encourages them to disrupt the normal flow of things in the name of what? School improvement? Or parasitical management?  


 
Principals should be focused on two things – (1) providing the best work environment for students and teachers; and (2) advocating for teachers and students. They should make sure teachers have what they need to get their jobs done effectively. And that means listening to exactly what those needs are. If those needs aren’t being met inside the district, the principal should go outside and work to get those resources brought in. 


 
Educators don’t need you to stand in judgement of them and then brag to your superiors about being a hard ass. They need you to get them the resources necessary – time, salary, lower class size, counselors, anything really that reduces the unnecessary from a teacher’s day so she can focus on her students.  


 
But demanding educators hand in lesson plans is just the opposite. You’re ADDING to the unnecessary work load, not reducing it.  
 


So lesson plans are an antiquated notion that need to go the way of mimeographs, transparencies and overhead projectors.   


 
Stop torturing educators with mindless busy work when there are so many mindful tasks begging to be done.  


 
Let teachers teach.  
 


And if you can’t figure that out, at least get out of the way. 


 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!