The fundamental contradiction in the national discourse on education policy is the dueling calls to recruit, and simultaneously to fire, huge numbers of teachers. Everyone knows that we are facing a teacher shortage in public education, and yet discussions of education policy in the media tend to be dominated by calls to fire teachers. President Obama is actually a pretty good example of this dissonance, in that his website indicates his education policies are designed to "recruit, prepare, retain, and reward America's Teachers. For example, check out Obama's call for new teachers in his speech today:
And so today, I am calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication; if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure - join the teaching profession. America needs you.
But we also get this from his speech today:
we have let... our teacher quality fall short... stop making excuses for bad ones [teachers]... money is tied to results... holding them [teachers] more accountable... [teachers must] accept more responsibilities... states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom... there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching.
I don't doubt that President Obama wants to solve the teacher shortage problem in America. However, call me crazy, but for the President of the United States to talk about increasing workloads for teachers, turning teachers into rivals over money and access to better performing students (which merit pay would do), and firing teachers en masse might not actually be the best way to recruit and retain new teachers.
Of course there are bad teachers, but there are people in every profession who are bad at what they do. The main problem with bad teachers not getting fired is connected to the teacher shortage, not due to tenure. If you want to solve that problem by recruiting and retaining new teachers, you need to make the prospect of becoming a teacher more attractive. Part of that means having widely admired political leaders such as President Obama not make public threats to increase teacher workloads, make the profession less collegial, and fire lots of teachers. Such threats are not a very good marketing campaign for people considering a career in teaching. Because what people really want to hear about in our current economic climate is an increased possibility of getting fired.
I taught for five years myself, but I ended up leaving the profession. It is an emotionally draining experience, and it is very difficult to be a good teacher unless you can maintain the emotional engagement all of the time. I think people know this, which is why I don't entirely understand why talk of making teachers work harder, making their profesion more competitive, and making their job secure is so common in America. We don't talk about making the lives of other people who work in public service, such as soldiers and first responders--or even health care workers--in such a foreboding way. If, as a nation, we actually want to solve our teacher shortage, part of that is going to mean dropping our constant national threats to make teachers lives more difficult. That is just a really, really bad way to recruit and retain teachers.