I wanted to write this in response to my recent learnings about public school teachers. I realized that for my thesis thus far I was looking only at the student and parent angle, and hadn’t brought up teachers yet. I’ll first express my gratitude for teachers, and then explain how teachers will play a critical role in the future alternative education.
Even though I went to a public school district I admittedly didn’t know much about public school teachers. Over the past month or so however I learned a bit about the under-appreciation of public school teachers in the US.
Public school teaching is not an attractive job by many standards. The complications of virtual schooling in 2020 and health protocols during the return to in-person schooling in 2021 only made things worse. Between January-November 2020, quits in the educational services sector rose 148%, while quits in states and local education rose 40%, according to federal data and WSJ. Many teachers don’t want to quit because they’re mission driven and committed to their students, but many feel like they don’t have a choice. There are also going to be less veteran teachers if conditions do not improve: “In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom.”
My perspective on public school teachers has always been limited. In my school district, students were very serious about their academics, and our parents pushed us hard. The main focus was on grades and test scores. As a result, although teachers in my school district were relatively well paid, I now recognize that they were severely under-appreciated because students saw teachers solely as “the person who makes my tests and grades my tests.” I don’t want to overgeneralize the experiences of all students in my district but that’s part of what I observed.
But I’ve always understood to some degree that teaching is not easy. I’ve seen chaotic high school classes where students are disrespectful and the teacher can’t seem to get things under control. While taking remote classes during my sophomore year I understood how difficult it was to lecture on Zoom — only after trying to run club meetings on Zoom and experiencing the same deafening silence that I’m sure many professors were familiar with in their live lectures. As a student I was so caught up in my own struggles with remote learning that I didn’t even think about how difficult it must be for the professor.
This realization and the news on the number of public school teachers who are quitting their jobs led me to think back to the best teachers and professors I’ve had and what made them so great.
My 5th grade teacher was a technology enthusiast. He taught us how to use computers and Microsoft Office, and his favorite tool was the flash drive (which unfortunately I don’t use now but back in 5th grade all the kids in my class thought it was the coolest thing).
He was also the first teacher I had who treated me like an adult. Every kid had a designated spot on the walls of the classroom where they could basically share a blog, survey, or any project they were working on, and every day we were given a couple minutes to walk around the room and look at other people’s wall spaces. He gave us that autonomy even when we were all 10 or 11 years old. I think what was most impressive about him was that he was very deliberate in helping us understand what it meant to be kind and responsible — he taught me the idea of morality and the consequences of our actions, and challenged us to consider what the “right thing to do” was. I also learned about financial literacy in his class– we did a stock market project where we had one thousand fake dollars to invest into a mock portfolio. I ignored his advice on diversification and put all my money into Apple.
Every assignment he gave he basically did with us and showed us his work, which further strengthened the idea that he was not above his students.
Even when I was a kid in his class I knew he was radically different from any teacher in the school district because he didn’t follow a strict curriculum. These were all my teacher’s choices and I just remember having so much fun that entire year.
In college, I’ve taken three courses with the same professor in three separate semesters. The first two courses were on Zoom and the last one this past fall was in-person.
From my very first class I had with this professor, it was immediately obvious that she was dedicated to her craft as a teacher. She loves feedback and you can tell that she does a ton of self reflection as well.
She does an amazing job of creating community in class — she contributes to this by being vulnerable and sharing relatable stories of herself. As a result, every student feels more inclined to share their own stories and how they relate to the course content, and the discussions in her classes are always high-quality. People just want to participate in her class. She also creates many opportunities for students to interact with each other and build relationships. From my perspective, she’s an expert at interleaving lecture with discussion or break out groups — both on Zoom and in-person. It’s very balanced.
She has many students but she makes an incredible effort to get to know them well and help them succeed. Even during Zoom classes where teaching content goes at a slower pace and there’s a ton of material to get through, she still reserved a few minutes at the beginning of class to have students share pictures of themselves and introduce their background in order for her to get to know them better. That stood out to me especially.
Teachers are the centerpiece to education. Since the beginning of my EdTech research I believed that teachers were key to the future of EdTech startups. Everyone remembers the one teacher who believed in them or helped them love learning, and those kinds of experiences are invaluable.
So Where Are Teachers Going?
After reading about how many teachers were quitting, I was curious about where educators went after they left the profession. I found that from 2012–2014 the majority of educators who left the industry moved into Healthcare and Social Assistance (i.e. child care and family assistance services), perhaps because a lot of those jobs require similar skills. Teachers ages 25–34 were by far the biggest movers out of the profession, meaning that many young teachers werenot sticking around for long.
More recent info that I found from the Wall Street Journal this year mentions that teachers who are quitting in this recent exodus are landing roles in industries like “IT services and consulting, hospitals and software development.” Teachers are extremely talented individuals who are doing very difficult work, so it’s no surprise that according to recruiters and careers coaches, “teachers’ ability to absorb and transmit information quickly, manage stress and multitask are high-demand skills.”
But I’m also interested in where public school teachers go because I want to know if some are considering teaching in alternative education. I think that alternative education could be more attractive for teachers, given that:
- Some of these alternative education experiences are virtual, providing greater flexibility to teachers
- Some startups like Schoolhouse build around the teacher and give them autonomy to run their classroom however they’d like
- Smaller teacher-student ratios in alternative education allow the teacher to get to know their students better and provide better support
- Allows them to stay directly involved with education as opposed to leaving the industry entirely, which could be attractive for teachers since many consider teaching a calling and love working with their students
- In alternative education, the role of the teacher is more of a guide than instructor— it’s more about providing support and feedback to students. So there’s less busy work of making tests and grading assignments. Overall, alternative education demands less of teachers by allowing them to focus on fewer responsibilities, whereas traditional education asks teachers to be a mentor, counselor, instructor, and content creator all at once.
Could there be a shift of teachers leaving public school districts and moving towards alternative education and microschooling/pods? That’s something I want to explore, because alternative education cannot succeed without great teachers and I want to understand how teachers fit into this disruption.
Teachers are the centerpiece of education and I’m grateful for the number of incredible teachers I’ve had over the years.
Thanks for reading! Part of the inspiration for this post was also from the InspirED Podcast by Galileo with guests Brian Tobal (CEO of Schoolhouse) and Joe Burgess (edtech software developer). I definitely want to speak to more teachers, so if you’re a teacher or know anyone who is I would love to talk!