An Educational Epidemic: The Elephant in the Classroom

An Educational Epidemic

The Elephant in the Classroom

By Ken Buck and NAfME Member Dr. Lori Schwartz Reichl

Teachers don’t leave because it’s hard. . . They leave because the amount of work no longer is comparable to pay, respect, support, and value that they deserve for the workload.Dr. Brad Johnson

In April 2022, Ken and Lori authored the #1 most-read article for the National Association for Music Education. It was read and shared with educators of all subject areas and levels beyond music. The article is entitled, “The Heartbreaking Truth about Education: Why and How Will We Survive?” 

educational epidemic empty classroom
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

The co-authors chose to write this follow-up article a year later to determine if the task of saving education has been accomplished or if the situation has worsened. This sequel will study the impact the educational epidemic is having on our society. The authors and their contributors are willing to address the issues that continue to be ignored.

Follow-Up

The nation is battling an epidemic that continues to impact our schools and our children. This time the crisis is not viral, but rather it is the ongoing loss of teachers and administrators throughout our country’s schools. This is not a wholly new problem. Those observing and experiencing education carefully have seen it coming for a decade or more. However, the crisis has become increasingly worse in the last several years, and things have gotten even more substandard post-COVID. While the reasons behind the teacher shortage crisis seemingly vary depending on who you ask, it eventually boils down to this: Fewer and fewer teachers are willing to do the increasingly harder job of serving as an educator for what the job pays. 

Teacher Pay

Teacher pay is an issue. Many teachers continue to moonlight or work side hustles to pay the bills. Rising inflation continues, yet educator pay does not seem to be keeping up.

Detractors will tell you that teachers “have it really good” with all of the “time off.” Strangely though, none of those naysayers are teachers, or more importantly, are not signing up to be teachers themselves. Those same detractors were the ones who, when teachers expressed their concerns about the profession in the past, declared, “Then quit if you don’t like the job.” And so our teachers quit and continue to do so, all while fewer are signing up to replace them. 

Working Conditions

While pay is important, the job of teaching has become increasingly more difficult, making it a job by which the working conditions seemingly can outweigh the wage issues. Teachers are being asked to work impossibly long hours beyond the normal day and are being assigned duties exceeding their qualifications. Some are working in schools without air conditioning, resources to outfit every learner, and classrooms of their own. Educators are being subjected to pressure from “the top,” increasing numbers of discipline issues, and adversity from their communities. With school shootings on the rise once again, safety continues to be a concern. More and more educators are deciding that the conditions of the job aren’t worth it anymore.

Incentives

School systems are encouraging teachers to register for the National Board Certification (NBC) program for Professional Teaching Standards. According to the NBC website, “National Board Certification is the most respected professional certification available in education and provides numerous benefits to teachers, students, and schools. It was designed to develop, retain and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide.” 

For those who receive NBC, it is a great deal of work that includes reading, writing, recording, reflecting, and assessing. Will NBC continue to be recognized as prestigious if much larger quantities of teachers receive the certification? Once passed, teachers can receive an annual stipend that ranges in value across school systems and states. Will this funding remain? 

teachers and administrator walking in school hallway
iStockphoto.com | kali9

Rather than increasing educator salaries overall or offering larger salary increases for earning an advanced degree, some school systems are promoting NBC as a way to earn a financial incentive. In comparison to larger stipend amounts school systems are offering teachers who receive NBC, most systems will only offer a small raise for earning an advanced degree. Shelly Williams, a retired Maryland educator who now resides in Wyoming, considered applying for NBC or earning an advanced degree, but ultimately decided against both. “At the time, I did not feel the certification program would actually make me a better teacher,” Williams comments. Instead, she chose to take self-selected courses to improve content-specific teaching. She states, “The small amount of salary increase for advanced degrees is shameful. It appears the school systems don’t actually value going to school.”

Focus and Discipline

Something changed after students returned to school full-time after COVID. Could it have been the time away from the discipline of being in the classroom? Could this be applied to both students and staff? 

empty school hallway
iStockphoto.com | TW Farlow

Teachers nationally are saying that students in the traditional brick-and-mortar school setting are having far more trouble staying focused and on task now. Discipline in schools as a whole seems to be as bad as it has ever been. Teachers feel, at the very least, disrespected by many students and at worst, wholly unsafe. Few will do a job where those two conditions exist.

Classroom management has been a priority of focus in educator training. It is the largest concern when speaking to building administration and those asked to design and present professional development for staff. But is “classroom management” the root of the problem? Do educators who are struggling the most with classroom management have a plan in place for each class? Will they be supported if student behaviors escalate beyond their control? Is their heart invested in the job anymore?

Political Differences

Another issue that has arisen in recent years is that teachers feel as though they are “political piñatas” when they simply want to do their job of teaching children. Politicians making decisions for and about educators has always been a sore subject among teachers; however, of late the political sparring over schools has become increasingly more divisive. These discrepancies are heightened at school board meetings nationwide. Do educators want to work in a community that does not value and support them?

Jon Sindler, a Maryland educator, is witnessing firsthand “that the caregivers are being given larger voices and are being sided with over the educators and administrators.” He feels politicians are feeding the fury and empowering them, most likely to get their votes. Sindler adds, “Why would a teacher want to enter or remain in this profession when they know that school leaders will almost always side with a threatening or complaining community member?” As an educator who lives in one county and teaches in another, Sindler feels that many vested professionals have zero say in their working school boards, while at the same time, others who have no vested interest are given a vote and often do so with little research or knowledge of the candidates or their qualifications. “The whole ‘alphabet issue’ is real,” Sindler says. “Candidates on the ballots are alphabetized by last name and voters may simply vote for the first three names listed.”

Recognition

Surveys regarding employee feedback and well-being continue to reveal that receiving a great onboarding experience and obtaining continued recognition for demonstrated efforts throughout one’s career are key factors to ensure employee satisfaction. For educator recruitment and retention to be effective, teachers must feel respected, mentored, and motivated. Doing so has a positive domino effect on our children to feel safe, nurtured, cultivated, inspired, and loved.

Impact Moving Forward

A year after the publication of “The Heartbreaking Truth About Education: Why and How Will We Survive?”, we still have a massive number of educators and administrators leaving the field. According to work derived from a research project by Dr. Tuan D. Nguyen and Dr. Chanh B. Lam of Kansas State University, and Dr. Paul Bruno of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the national Teacher Shortage numbers are nearing 40,000. If the shortage is this high, the concern should be the quality of candidates available to teach our childrenour future. 

hands raised
iStockphoto.com | miniseries

It appears there is still heartbreak in education. This educational epidemic is having a lasting impact on the profession particularly with educator recruitment and retention. Will we have enough qualified and dedicated educators and administrators to lead, teach, and love our students? Unfortunately, we have yet to turn the problem over to educators. We must address the elephant in our classrooms now. If we do not, education can not possibly survive.

About the authors: 

Ken BuckKen Buck has served in education since 1984 primarily in South Carolina, first as a classroom teacher and coach, then as a district’s communications director, before moving into the role as a high school administrator. Since retiring from education in 2015, he has continued in the field as an education consultant specializing in school communications. He has also served as an elected member of his local school board. Ken is also the author of several educational articles in various state and national publications. He is currently working on a book on the coming crisis in public education.

Ken Buck earned his Bachelor of Education from Clemson University and his Master of Education Administration from Grand Canyon University. Ken lives in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area with his wife Jill and their two children. Learn more: https://www.kenbuck.info/.

Lori Schwartz Reichl 2021
Photo: Richard Twigg Photography

NAfME member Dr. Lori Schwartz Reichl is a champion of mentorship and motivation. Her mission is to encourage individuals to reflect on our practices while making key changes to refresh strategies that represent a shared vision to enrich the classroom, company, and community. Dr. Reichl’s unique educational experiences have permitted her to expand her multifaceted career into a portfolio as a clinician, conductor, instructor, writer, and speaker. 

Dr. Reichl has served as a proud educator since 2001. In Pennsylvania, she received the Superintendent’s Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Daniel Boone Area School District, and in Maryland, she was a finalist for the Howard County Parents for School Music Educator of the Year Award and the Howard County Public School System’s Teacher of the Year Award. She designed her mentoring work into two graduate courses that she instructs at The University of the Arts (Philadelphia) and VanderCook College of Music (Chicago) each summer. She also serves as a contributing member of advocacy organizations. 

Musically, Dr. Reichl serves as an adjudicator, clinician, and guest conductor for honor bands in many states. Generally, Dr. Reichl is the author of nearly 100 articles reprinted with permission by more than 10 organizations worldwide. She has presented hundreds of professional development sessions and keynote speeches for educational systems and organizations in half of the nation’s states including international events. In addition, Dr. Reichl has been interviewed for 16 podcasts and creates inspirational content for a monthly newsletter consisting of thousands of subscribers. 

Contact Dr. Reichl and invite her to collaborate with your students, educators, and administrators. 

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April 11, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)