The Future of the Teaching Workforce

According to a recent PDK Poll on public attitudes around public school education, 46 percent of respondents say they want their children to grow up to be teachers, significantly down from the 70 percent who had that aspiration for their children in 2009. Respondents cite concerns that teachers today are overworked, underpaid, and very underappreciated. Many who teach today would add overstressed to that list.

PDK Poll, 2018‚Äč

According to a 2016 research brief by Pennsylvania State University, “High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.” The study cites four drivers of stress:

  • school organizations that lack strong leadership, a healthy school climate and a collegial, supportive environment;
  • job demands that are escalating with high-stakes testing, student behavioral problems, and difficult parents;
  • work resources that limit a teacher’s sense of autonomy and decision-making power; and
  • teacher social and emotional competence to manage stress and nurture a healthy classroom.

How will these factors affect our ability to retain our current workforces and develop a pipeline for the future? Some of the drivers named above are more descriptive of public than independent school environments, but we share many of these challenges and need to begin addressing them if we are to attract and retain the teachers we need.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, many states are already facing teacher shortages, particularly in the disciplines of math, special education, science, and world languages.

And what about the teaching pipeline? The numbers of those students pursuing education majors in college or graduate school are significantly down. According to an article in MarketWatch, “Back in 1975, more than one-fifth (22 percent) of college students majored in education—a higher share than any other major. By 2015, fewer than one in 10 Americans pursuing higher education devoted their studies to education, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.” Also significant is that over the past 40 years more women have moved away from education as other fields opened up to them. According to a recent UCLA study conducted among freshmen in college today, the number of students interested in teaching continues to decline, with nearly 10 percent indicating an interest in 2006 and less than half that by 2016.

Demand for Teachers

Given the challenges on the supply side, is the demand for teachers still increasing? As outlined in NAIS’s 2018 Trendbook, demand is predicted to increase between now and 2026 by nearly 10 percent. According to a 2018 study by the Learning Policy Institute, the increased demand is driven by changes in student enrollment, shifts in pupil-teacher ratios, and most significantly, high levels of teacher attrition. The latter, the study suggests, is where we should put our efforts today. It particularly calls out that attrition is highest among teachers with little preparation and those in high-poverty and high-minority schools. Of those who leave, lack of administrative support tends to be the factor most often cited. Other factors include quality of school leadership and lack of professional learning opportunities, time for collaboration and planning, and decision-making input.

To better support teachers, authors Michael Horn, Bob Moesta, and Tom Arnett, in a piece written for the Christensen Institute, suggest that leaders must understand how teachers seek to make progress with their students. This is particularly important as so many schools are experimenting with new teaching and learning initiatives, which, when executed poorly, can drive teachers to leave. Using the Jobs-to-Be-Done methodology, they uncovered the following four jobs teachers have for making progress:

  1. Help me lead the way in improving my school.
  2. Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable.
  3. Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student.
  4. Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.

Understanding and supporting the progress your teachers want to make may lead to greater teacher satisfaction and stem some of the attrition that is characteristic of the market today.

Technology and Teaching

If the future demand for teachers exceeds the supply, are there options to fill the gap? Could technology provide needed support? Most forecasters agree that technology will not replace teachers, at least in the foreseeable future. In Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson point out the unique complexity of the human brain, underscoring why humans will likely always play a role in fields that demand lots of human interaction, like teaching. They point to Polanyi’s Paradox, which states that our tacit knowledge of how the world works often exceeds our explicit understanding. We simply don’t and can’t know what rules we ourselves are using to get something right and, although self-learning machines are getting smarter through experience, they cannot yet replace this uniquely human function.

However, technology can be a valuable teaching aid, freeing up a teacher’s time for those efforts that will have the greatest impact on students. A new study led by robotics professor Tony Belpaeme, from the University of Plymouth and Ghent University, suggests that “social robots are proving effective in the teaching of certain narrow subjects, such as vocabulary or prime numbers. But current technical limitations—particularly around speech recognition and the ability for social interaction—mean their role will largely be confined to that of teaching assistants or tutors, at least for the foreseeable future.”

One experiment in New Zealand suggests how this partnership between human and machine could work. The digital avatar named Will is a teacher’s assistant. Students can access him on most any device when needed. Currently, he is aiding elementary students learning about energy use and different forms of sustainable energy. He is able to answer student questions and pick up on nonverbal cues—when smiled at, he smiles back. Although Will has a limited knowledge base and can’t exhibit the kind of judgment a human can, avatars like Will can be used as personal tutors on specific subjects.

There also are some indications that virtual reality could help in rural areas where teacher shortages are likely to become severe. Colin Magee of the LearnLaunch Institute suggests that, as VR advances, “students and teachers could interact in virtual environments with the same level of intimacy as in the real world. The LectureVR app is already making distance irrelevant through its suite of virtual meeting places and lecture halls.”

Independent schools need to prioritize developing their workforce of the future. This begins with understanding the state of their current workforce and identifying where gaps are likely to exist in the coming decade. Many schools already face huge numbers of baby boomer retirements and may also be experiencing higher turnover among younger teachers. We need to look more deeply than just compensation and ask the question, “what would make our school a preferred employer in the future?” Without high-quality teachers to guide our students into an ever-changing landscape we risk extinction. Food for thought.

Picture of NAIS.Models.AuthorPreviewViewModel.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.