The more I think about it, the more upset I get.
Last month, the Department of Education in my home state of Florida did something that sounds like a good idea on paper but in truth is a slap in the face to teachers everywhere.
In an effort to address the very real and damaging teacher shortage we are facing (nearly a third of teachers may leave the profession this year), they are now opening classrooms to military veterans to teach.
On its face, I can see good intent behind the idea of moving vets into the classroom. Not only is Florida working to ensure their students are not left without teachers, but it gives a renewed sense of purpose to veterans, some of which are desperate to find it.
But when you consider that these vets are being deemed teachers WITHOUT requiring proper teaching certification, those good feelings start to dissipate. Let me say that again, Florida’s department of education is allowing military vets to teach our children without first being certified educators. For some perspective, every year more than a quarter million people leave college having worked years to get a degree in education. Then they must pass a state-approved education program, pass a background check, as well as another general teacher certification exam and score well on a subject-specific exam before they are considered teachers.
This is not the exact path that everyone takes to become a teacher but the point is these people work for years, studying and training, usually while incurring thousands in debt, to become qualified, professional educators. That is not to take anything away from the rigorous steps people in the military take to rise in rank. It is only to show that these are different fields requiring different expertise and are not interchangeable.
Let me pause for a moment and say that I have the utmost respect for our military forces and their desire to continue to help, even after their service is done. In fact, their efforts are already having an impact thanks to the recently renewed Troops to Teachers program which gets willing vets to be certified and employed K-12 education staff. This is the kind of help our vets, teachers and kids need.
But that is not what DeSantis is proposing. Imagine if Florida were facing a shortage of dentists or tax accountants, do you imagine he would hire non-certified people – no matter their good intent — to do those jobs? At the same time that we are facing a teacher shortage, we are also facing a very real shortage of military recruitment this year and by Florida’s logic we should be recruiting teachers into the military without training them to drive our tanks, fly our planes and fire weapons. It doesn’t make sense, so why is it happening to teachers?
In my opinion, despite the warm and fuzzy stories we share about our childhood teachers, there is simply not enough respect shown to educators in this country. I know this because I have seen their fight for respect from the inside — both as a teacher myself and as a labor leader representing millions of educators.
When was the last time you heard of a doctor setting up an Amazon wish list just to make sure her patients have access to clean medical equipment? Why aren’t I reading countless stories about pediatricians taking on additional jobs just to make ends meet?
It’s because those positions are valued higher in our society, and along with sentimental value comes monetary value. Point blank, this country doesn’t pay teachers enough — money or respect — and has long demeaned teaching as “women’s work” as if women working to educate the next generation is something to look down on. That’s why Florida assumes anyone can walk off the street and do just as good a job as a trained, educated professional.
The American Federation of Teachers study “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?” looks at what America must do to attract and retain the educators and school staff students need.
So what are we going to do about it? How do we begin to show those pursuing the noble effort to create informed, knowledgeable citizens the kind of respect they deserve? As I mentioned earlier, money is a big part of it. Not all of it, but a good place to start, says 93% of educators we surveyed who said raising pay is crucial. And while some have painted teachers as lazy elites whining to make more and more money, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has pointed out, “U.S. teachers earn less than 70 percent of the salaries of full-time, full-year workers (25- to 64-year-olds) with tertiary education in the United States.” So yes, educators need to be paid more.
But they also need to be paid in respect. First by the public at large, of which a loud minority has recently degraded teachers as “groomers” for daring to consider the existence of LGBTQIA+ people, “racists” for supporting honest history and then asked them to either become armed bodyguards or human shields as school shootings continued unabated.
Secondly, teachers want respect from their administrations.
Our March survey found that 90% of teachers had “more respect and support from administration,” as one of the top three choices as to what would improve their job satisfaction. That respect not only means giving them the resources they ask for (additional training, etc.) but trusting their expertise and experience to know the best way to use those resources, create curriculum and conduct their classes.
All that being said, there is no magic bullet that will instantly cure this teacher shortage. For many, the damage has already been done. But for those still holding on and especially for those looking to start a career in education, now is the time to start showing them some respect. Now is the time to pay them like we mean it. Now is the time to empower teachers to stay and return to the classroom instead of looking for replacements. Now is the time that we, as a country, show teachers that we truly thank them for their service.
Fedrick C. Ingram is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, serving 1.7 million members, including pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; school and college support staff; higher education faculty; federal, state and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. Ingram is the immediate past president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association. He also has served as an elected vice president of the AFT’s executive council.