In defense of teachers: A back-to-school benediction

If ever there were a time to dedicate a school year to restoring the luster of teaching and appreciation for teachers, 2023-24 should be it.

August 14, 2023 12:07 am

A cup of pencils sit on top of a classroom desk in Virginia (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

Early on an August morning, in air heavy with the lifting late-summer dew, tiny fingers clasp the toughened hands that raised them at a neighborhood corner or rural crossroads waiting for a lumbering, yellow school bus to screech to a halt.

Its doors will swing open. The driver will greet the small people and beckon them aboard. The big kids will clamber inside and take their seats. For the smallest, however, it will be a moment of frightful uncertainty. The 5-year-old child’s grasp will tighten on the parental hand; together they approach the bus door.

One last glance upward. The child looks for the loving assurance needed to take the singular step that decisively delineates life as it has been from a forever different life ahead. It ends the hazy comfort of daycare or, for some, years spent in the cocoon of home. Counting pre-K, it begins a 13- to 14-year educational journey designed to end someday with a cap and gown, a diploma, hugs, photographs and big smiles.

Yet on this morning, tears will gather and spill, even from the wariest of eyes. Grown-ups will try to conceal it from their children — failing more often than not — in hopes that the first day of school will be remembered more as the start of a joyful and fulfilling odyssey than one of the unsettling times the child saw mom or dad cry.

It’s morning on the first day of a new school year.

In a world gone awry, our public schools remain the essential bulwark and common bond of our communities and of Virginia broadly. Battered and bruised, the system still works. And it works primarily because of the professionals at the heart of it all: teachers.

It works, even with such sobering and unprecedented challenges as Virginia’s dreadful levels of pandemic-related learning loss and mass shootings, seemingly at random, across the nation in classrooms filled with children.

Four takeaways from Virginia’s post-pandemic standardized test results

It works, even as many teachers — burned out by meager pay, the erosion of their professional discretion and creativity, a slavish institutional fealty to standardized testing, a caustic political environment and ebbing public and administrative support — abandoned the profession in an exodus exacerbated by the pandemic. It created acute shortages in some Virginia districts.

It works, even as more parents choose alternatives to public schools such as private or religious schools and homeschooling. Projected enrollment in Virginia this fall is down by just over 65,000 students from the fall statewide enrollment of nearly 1.3 million in 2019, according to National Center for Educational Statistics data.

It works because of the teachers, the counselors, the administrators, the school nurses, the bus drivers, the coaches, the custodians — the people who show up every day to provide the instruction, socialization and structure that prepares kids for adulthood.

If ever there were a time to dedicate a school year to restoring the luster of teaching and appreciation for teachers, 2023-24 should be it.

We should do it just because it’s right and it’s a smart investment. Always has been.

For those parents or guardians or other caregivers who walk their little ones to those school bus stops (or to the front door of the school building itself) during these closing weeks of summer, the contributions of a teacher at some point in life remain very real. Most will recall a special teacher who just clicked, who reached out; who saw a struggle and stepped in to lend encouragement and impart understanding; who saw promise and leaned in to help grow and polish it to its brightest potential.

You’ve seen stories of teachers using personal funds to help supply classroom materials, even though average pay for K-12 faculty in Virginia trailed the national average by more than $6,000 in the 2022-23 school year, according to Education Week.

The General Assembly made some progress toward boosting teacher pay closer to the national average by appropriating a 5% raise for the current fiscal year. It could have been 7% had the General Assembly bothered to finalize amendments to the second half of the biennial budget by its June 30 deadline.

Willful neglect of Virginia’s second-year budgets must not become our new normal

There is, however, a more practical and pressing reason to restore our cadre of educators: because we have too few of them now to optimally instruct the children we entrust to their care.

According to state Department of Education data, the commonwealth was about 3,573 vacancies, or 3.9%, short of its full complement of just over 92,000 teachers last October. That’s up from an average of 870 vacancies from 2015 to 2020, according to a scathing recent report by the General Assembly’s research and analysis arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. In 2021, that number vaulted to about 2,600 and continued climbing, JLARC reported.

The problems driving teachers out of the classrooms, however, aren’t all about pay and they’re not exclusive to Virginia. A study published in December by the Economic Policy Institute found that salary was tied for fourth among reasons teachers bailed. The top reason given (by 43%) of the 958 departing K-12 public school teachers EPI surveyed: “The stress and disappointments of teaching weren’t worth it.” Twenty-four percent cited insufficient pay, just behind “I did not get enough support from my school district” (29%).

After COVID-19 was deemed sufficiently controlled for classroom instruction to resume, teachers reported a sharp increase in outright insubordination, defiance and threats by students. It reached a horrifying ultimate conclusion when a 6-year-old boy allegedly shot and gravely wounded his first-grade teacher in Newport News with a handgun he smuggled into school from his home, then bragged about it.

The stress and disrespect don’t end at the classroom door, either. As administrators made greater demands on teachers’ time, support for them ebbed among the public, parents and elected officials as public education became a major wedge issue in the 2021 governor’s race with teachers and curricula caught in the middle.

Those are among the conditions that drove bright young educators like John Reaves, whom I interviewed a year ago, to other professions. Reaves had returned to his alma mater, Henrico County’s Mills E. Godwin High School, to teach English. When schools closed for the summer in 2022, he left the safety of a secure paycheck to become a screenwriter.

Subpar pay, burnout, pandemic disruptions and a teacher exodus

Which returns us to all those poignant first-day-of-school moments now upon us, moments when hope and fear wrestle in the hearts of both the new pupils and their parents.

The best hopes for those tender, precious souls who represent the putative senior classes of 2037 or ’38 are inextricably tied to how well Virginia recruits, hires, retains, empowers, monitors and supports their teachers.

Their worst fears are that we, as a commonwealth, do the same things for the next dozen or so years that we’ve done for the past four or five.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]