Brad Asay and Christine Cooke: Attract and retain teachers by giving them more autonomy

Teaching is one of the most noble professions.

Eighty-five percent of teachers choose the profession because they want to “make a worthwhile difference in the lives of children,” according to survey results published in 2018.

Noble as it is, the profession is not as popular a career choice as it once was.

Utah is spared a sweeping, statewide teacher shortage, but there are still retention issues in areas like rural districts, special education classrooms, and STEM fields. Additionally, more than half the state's teachers left after an eight-year period, from 2008 to 2015, according to a 2017 report from the Utah Education Policy Center. And we know that fewer college students are graduating from Utah teacher preparation programs.

“Emotional exhaustion, stress, and burnout” was the top reason that was either “extremely influential or very influential” for educators choosing to leave the teacher profession, according to the 2018 teacher survey. Insufficient salary was also listed, but noticeably further down the list.

In recent years, to address these trends, Utah has offered stipends (or extra pay) for teachers that are in high need areas, created non-traditional paths to educator licenses, and developed in-classroom career pathways. Local school districts have increased starting salary.

But with burnout being the leading reason for exiting the profession, the question remains: What more can be done so the noble profession is also one of the most sought after?

We could start by re-enthroning in public policy the purpose of education – and the reason that teachers evidently choose the profession in the first place – which is the learning of the student. This could be accomplished by giving teachers more autonomy and space for personal judgment in the classroom. For example: Rather than having teachers evaluated by their ability to keep to a curriculum schedule, we ought to evaluate how well they prioritize or adapt to student interests, needs and pacing.

Educators are regularly handed down new policies, procedures, and testing timelines. If these become the priority, then teachers are incentivized to comply with rules rather than adapt to student needs. This eats away at the purpose for choosing the profession in the first place – making low pay and other stresses less tolerable.

In state policymaking, this means we should slow our efforts to create more statutes, rules and reforms. This also means cutting ourselves off from federal involvement as much as possible, since the requirements they offer compound the compliance burden felt by teachers.

Similarly, we ought to allow teachers greater control over assessments and testing. There is general consensus that there is an overemphasis on testing, but there are few efforts to actually reduce the issue. One possibility is to let teachers have space for flexibility in testing schedules depending on when teachers determine students are ready and – even bolder – allowing teachers to come up with better ways of assessing students when appropriate.

Consider the turmoil over choosing a single statewide test that satisfies everyone (SAGE versus RISE) and the hubbub over the expensive computerized test that crashed on test days during the 2018-19 academic year. Even when these efforts are intended for the benefit of the students, these examples highlight how easily education can focus on things other than learning.

Finally, there needs to be a faster and more legitimate feedback loop from those in the schools to those in the district offices and state Capitol, so that those who are implementing policies can help shape them.

Practicality shows that those closest to a subject know it best. Let cafeteria workers give insight on food options on test days, let hall monitors give insight on bullying, give teachers a say in curriculum decisions or bell schedules or student discipline, and most importantly, make it easier for parents to partner with schools. Most of these factors ultimately land at the feet of teachers when dealing with students face to face. Let’s allow them the opportunity to influence policies from the outset rather than just finessing the particulars. Our teachers are professionals and ought to be treated that way.

Being a teacher is a noble career choice. But we have to make sure that it’s still an attractive one.

Christine Cooke

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.

Brad Asay

Brad Asay is president of the American Federation of Teachers Utah.