Florida is facing a serious teacher shortage, and it's no surprise given the low pay, low career esteem, long hours and bureaucratic burdens of standardized testing and paperwork. Making the state's classrooms a more attractive place to work will require more than higher pay — although that would be a start. It will take better training, more freedom in the classroom to teach and, to quote the late Aretha Franklin, just a little respect.
Numbers compiled by the Florida Education Association show there were 4,063 teacher vacancies statewide as the school year started. That compared with 3,000 last year and 2,400 the year before. While the numbers may be a bit imprecise, the trend line is clear.
Pay is part of the problem. Starting pay for a teacher is as little as $30,900 in rural Taylor County. Even Pinellas County's starting teacher pay, which at $43,000 is in the top tier statewide, is below the county's median family income and doesn't really pay enough for someone hoping to buy a new a car and rent or buy a decent place to live.
But it's not just pay. Teachers routinely have too few resources, covering school supplies and other essentials out of their own pockets. They are given too little time to plan so that work hours extend deep into the evening and on the weekends. Their classroom time can be so proscribed by picayune district and state rules that they have little flexibility. Tests and assessments come so frequently that they interfere with classroom instruction and become education-interrupting exercises in frustration.
The class-size amendment, with its strict rules on students per class, has amplified the problem as districts scramble to hire enough teachers to meet the legal requirements. But some districts have found it cheaper simply to pay fines for too-crowded classrooms rather than hire enough teachers. That helps no one at all. In that sense, the 2002 class size amendment, while well-intentioned, has continued to warp the priorities of state education spending and focus.
Education is a unique profession in that from day one, a new teacher can be left by herself in a class full of students — whether it's first grade or calculus — to be in charge of instruction, discipline, classroom management and helping the struggling student master the material while challenging the top student to achieve yet more, at the same time keeping the fidgeting kid in the back from disrupting the entire enterprise.
Things need to improve — and now. Start with pay. Florida ranks 45th in average teacher pay ($47,267) and is far lower than the national average of $59,660. The National Education Association calculates that average teacher pay in Florida, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 12.2 percent over the past decade. Still, teachers don't do it for the money.
Everybody remembers a great teacher, that special person who sparked a passion or saw a special something in a student. What made that teacher extraordinary wasn't some rote quality that could be reduced to a test score or easily measured by a value-added model. It was a certain something that everyone could sense but no one could actually measure. And in trying to isolate the precise qualities that demonstrate a great teacher's excellence, officials have made it a bloodless exercise, devoid of passion, when superb teaching is as much art as science.
Whatever the field, good hiring managers find the best people, pay them well and give them freedom to do their jobs. Give teachers the tools they need, the pay they deserve and the respect they merit, and all the rest will take care of itself.