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School districts are struggling to hire as teachers reconsider their careers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's a new school year, and many districts around the country have been scrambling to find and keep enough teachers to lead their classrooms. Many educators are thinking about their future, often because of some unprecedented challenges. Teachers will tell you that it's never been an easy or lucrative career path, but now they're at the front line of deep societal fractures that can be scary, school board meetings that devolve into chaos over COVID policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These are our kids, not yours. Where are yours?

FADEL: There's the disinformation and hysteria around critical race theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's not in our schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It is in our schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Show me in the curriculum where CRT, that you cannot even define, is in our schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All you have to do is go to social media, sir.

FADEL: Book banning and calls to arm teachers in the face of gun violence at schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Lawrence County is the first school district in the state of Georgia to arm its teachers.

FADEL: Some teachers say it's driving them out of the classroom.

JAKE MILLER: My name is Jake Miller. I live in central Pennsylvania. I was a teacher for 15 years and just recently left the profession.

FADEL: He made the decision in the middle of the school year. Now he's a business consultant.

Why did you leave the profession?

MILLER: There's been an attack on education for quite some time. The pandemic was just a weight too heavy. You know, that was the albatross that pulled me under. And I knew that I needed to pivot. That was especially true because I was accused of teaching critical race theory when I taught about how the Civil War was fought over racism and slavery.

FADEL: Well, wait a second.

MILLER: And there's so many other things, too.

FADEL: I'm sorry.

MILLER: Yeah.

FADEL: When you taught that the Civil War was about slavery and racism...

MILLER: Yes.

FADEL: ...People complained?

MILLER: There were some parents who brought that to the attention of the school board, and those parents weren't satisfied with the school board's response. So they took it to a state representative, who has used this as a dog whistle. So...

FADEL: I'm sorry. I'm just so kind of blown away because, I mean, how do you teach the Civil War without talking about slavery and racism?

MILLER: You cannot (laughter). So that is why I ended up where I am.

FADEL: There were other moments - a shortage of substitute teachers, the low pay, the lack of respect from parents and politicians.

MILLER: When I stopped having fun, I knew I had to be there for my family more. And I'm making a lot more money, too. And when I left teaching, I got a 50% pay raise.

FADEL: Is there any part of you that regrets walking away?

MILLER: I don't regret it. I do not.

FADEL: Teachers around the country are making similar calculations to Miller.

ALEXANDER CALDERON: My name is Alexander Calderon. I am a seventh-grade teacher out in Queens. I teach seventh-grade ELA and social studies.

FADEL: He was only an ELA teacher, English language arts teacher. And then a colleague quit overnight, and suddenly, he was also the social studies teacher.

CALDERON: I felt like there was little to no support in terms of understanding this new curriculum. I was really at my breaking point to the point where I was thinking about just leaving. I wrote pros and cons of, like, why I should stay on my phone.

FADEL: The pros - pay wasn't bad, comparatively. His colleagues were supportive. He wanted to stay for his students.

CALDERON: There were a little bit more cons.

FADEL: Little support from the administration. He was doing the job of two teachers. School morale was terrible. And he was watching one teacher after the next leave. This week, though, he decided to return to the classroom for a new school year to teach both English and social studies. His list is still saved on his phone.

What was it that told you, no, I'm going to stick it out? This is the reason.

CALDERON: Honestly, the kids. The kids are our No. 1 priority. Those relationships, seeing what the kids' interests are and getting to know them as people is what ultimately drove me to stay because I felt, you know, if I leave, some of these students are going to be feeling that, like, oh, another adult or somebody that is in this power role left me behind. Like, what does that mean for my future?

FADEL: Part of the reason you became an educator was because you didn't see teachers that look like you. And I'm just wondering if you teach kids who can see themselves in you. I know you're Latino.

CALDERON: So the demographic is, I want to say, statistically maybe 85% Black, and then the rest of the statistic is Latinx. So there are kids in the classroom that did see me. One particular case, we had a student come from Nicaragua, and I was on the middle school level the sole, like, Spanish translator.

FADEL: Oh, wow.

CALDERON: So there was that pressure of, like, catering to that population where, like, I had one year where I catered to one family. When I saw that parent, it made me think of my own mom struggling through the American education system.

FADEL: Yeah.

CALDERON: So I felt that I was kind of morally obligated to stay because this kid is coming from a completely different system of education.

FADEL: And then there are the teachers who plan to stick it out no matter what.

ERIC HALE: My name is Eric Hale. I'm from Dallas, Texas. I teach in Dallas ISD. I teach first grade.

FADEL: Are you in your classroom right now?

HALE: Yes, I am. We're working on number bonds.

FADEL: Hale is a dapper dresser - an emerald green tie and navy blazer, complete with a bright orange pocket square. Behind him is a bulletin board waiting to be filled with the year's activities. That clicking noise in the background is his daughter playing. In 2021, he was named Teacher of the Year for the entire state of Texas, the first African American man to win the honor.

HALE: And so I got to meet these phenomenal educators that represented their state, and we got to meet the president. And it was a whole yearlong bonding experience. And out of my crew, only me and the state teacher of Illinois are still actively in the classroom. A lot of them, especially the teachers of color, got tired of fighting a system that necessarily wasn't designed for people that look like me and the kids that I serve to be successful. They got tired of the disrespect of the profession. And most importantly, they got tired of the lack of compensation.

FADEL: Would you ever leave teaching, education?

HALE: No because I'm in a position, and I've been blessed that I'm changing the face of education.

FADEL: Growing up as a Black student from a poorer neighborhood who didn't have a support system, Hale says he didn't have any teachers that looked like him, no teachers that truly understood his needs.

HALE: So I teach angry. I'm chasing the ghost of the teacher that I wish I had when I was a child. I grew up being abused and in trauma in a neighborhood that was generationally underserved. Sadly, I didn't have any great teachers. I just had one who made a difference.

FADEL: So now he is that teacher every day in his classroom of first-graders, where many of his students live in poverty and the school just doesn't get the books and equipment that public schools in richer areas get.

HALE: I teach in the same type of neighborhood that I grew up in. I fight for these kids because I know the potential. I'm a firm believer of some of the brightest minds come from the darkest places.

FADEL: Meanwhile, he says, he's been watching this uproar over critical race theory around the country. Teachers can barely afford the resources for their own curriculum, he says. So it's laughable that they'd shell out money for a college course.

HALE: They're trying to criminalize good teaching.

FADEL: The misinformed panic, he says, is a political weapon to stop teachers who think about who the students are in their classroom and how to get students of every race and ethnicity to feel connected.

HALE: Let me give you an example. I teach every child that I serve the Texas state curriculum. I add to that curriculum images in literature and in person to inspire them that they can be a doctor, a lawyer, a novelist, an author by bringing people that come from the same areas that they come from. So because I'm African American, I have to do my research and find great leaders of Hispanic descent because the population that I serve is mostly Hispanic because once again, in the neighborhood that I grew up in, I wish that somebody would have brought a judge to the school. I wish that somebody would have brought a current congressman, a senator, the mayor, you name it. I've brought them. And I'm actively trying to bring them again - of all different colors. Representation matters.

FADEL: Also, he creates songs named after his students tailored to their personalities.

HALE: I have a DJ booth next to me, and so I DJ in my classroom. And each song is special and unique, just like the kids because I sit at home, and I think, and I say, oh, man, oh, Jaime (ph) is very active. His feet are always moving. So I like these drums. They have a little pitter-patter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HALE: And so I'm able to describe the songs to them. And it makes them feel so special, and it makes them feel so loved.

FADEL: It's what he would have wanted when he was a child. It's why Eric Hale teaches. Jake Miller, who left teaching - he taught because of one teacher who inspired him to be the first in his family to go to college. Alexander Calderon teaches to be the bridge builder for students who need him in the public school system. And all of them, whether they stay or leave, look to the future of education with hope.

MILLER: Yeah, I have two young sons, so you better believe I'm darn hopeful that the education that they get is going to be as good, if not better, an education than I received.

CALDERON: I know there's always going to be teachers in the classroom that are going to stick it out for the long run.

HALE: I pray, and I write a plan. How am I going to fix this? Why wait for Superman when you got a cape in the closet?

FADEL: Miller, Calderon and Hale say the future is in these students. But what their future looks like depends, they say, on if the educators at the front of the room feel valued enough to stay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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