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Abundance in the Land of Scarcity

Shortages of teachers, materials, support and respect have become the norm

by Laurel Schmidt

Put the words teacher and shortage together in the same sentence and most people picture a room full of students with no teacher in sight. But for professionals on the front lines of teaching, the first thought that comes to mind is the persistent shortage of almost everything they need to do their job well. Each day they tackle the enormously complex challenge of luring their students into the world of learning, often armed with little more than their creativity and a box of chalk. Scarcity has been such a constant in education for so long, it has achieved the status of a natural law.

Let’s start with the basics. Teachers routinely spend hundreds of dollars on pens, pencils, printer paper, scissors, glue, snacks, even soap and paper towels, which explains why during Teacher Appreciation Week, people set up GoFundMe accounts to help with classroom expenses that would otherwise come from teachers’ pockets. One teacher posted the wry comment, “Teaching is the only job where you steal things from home to take to work.”

Rationing is common. Most teachers get a limited number of copies on a machine that is frequently broken. Computers, audio-visual materials, even books, yes, books are in short supply. The last teacher hired in any building may find that the shelves in the book room are bare. And so the begging begins, trying to cobble together enough student texts to muddle through.

Teaching as a Famine Culture

Beyond the lack of material resources there are more serious conditions in education that create an atmosphere of famine, turning teachers’ thoughts from success to self-preservation or simply survival. When the economy goes south, class size swells and professional development days shrink. Even in eras of economic boom, teachers endure low salaries and lower status. According to Linda Darling-Hammond from the Learning Policy Institute, in 30 states a teacher with a family of four is eligible for several sources of government assistance, including free or reduced-price lunch for their own children in school.

Teachers are also excluded from critical decisions that directly affect their work because research and policy-making are routinely completed without input from the very people being researched and regulated. The proliferation of test-focused strategies, scripted, teacher-proof curriculum and sanctions galore means that teachers have lost autonomy over their instructional programs and even discretion about their individual classroom schedules, despite their credentials and years of experience.

training blue puzzle pieceFor the latest evidence of this predicament you need look no farther than Arizona which is struggling with a severe teacher shortage. Thousands of teachers have left the state in recent years for reasons including low pay, insufficient classroom resources, and so many testing requirements and teaching guidelines that they feel they have no flexibility and too little authentic instructional time. Arizona’s solution according to the Washington Post is to allow teachers without certification or even any teacher preparation to be hired and put immediately to work in the classroom.

Nationwide, educators live with a persistent scarcity of materials, information and power, and as a result many exhibit symptoms associated with people living through an actual famine. In his book, Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1942), the researcher Pitirim Sorokin observed that victims of famine typically feel helpless to change their situation because they’re at the mercy of the elements and unresponsive political systems. This creates apathy alternating with anger toward those in power who can’t or won’t provide relief. Victims cannot pursue learning activities because their cognitive processes are monopolized by the calamity, and they’re forced to make choices that involve personal sacrifice.

If you’ve spent any time on a K-12 campus — in the lounge, at a faculty meeting, even in the restrooms — you can hear echoes of Sorokin’s research. The theme of personal sacrifice dominates many a conversation in the form of teacher complaints about giving too much time, money and effort for too little return. Compounding their distress is the fact that they feel powerless to change their circumstances, resulting in a what’s-the-use attitude. So they stop fighting for best practices. Stop thinking about their dilemma. Many simply shut down, refusing to engage in professional growth of any kind — even with the inducements of extra pay or release time — in order to conserve their limited time and energy. This withdrawal from professional life may be broken by periodic attacks on the system, the principal — anyone responsible for failing to improve the situation. Eventually, some teachers simply can’t go on without regular, sufficient sustenance, so they leave the profession. Pre-retirement turnover is rising with highly effective experienced teachers heading for greener pastures, creating another loss for those who remain behind. Others stay at their posts but endure the slow death of burning out on the job.

This is tragic because at the outset of their careers, many of these fine people were passionate, dedicated and energetic, almost impervious to the challenges. But repeated exposure to scarcity, frequent cuts in programs and recurring rumors of the next downturn erode their spirits, leaving them wary, worried and in a defensive crouch–, exhausted by the tension between their aspirations and actuality.

Anti-Famine Strategies

But some teachers never go hungry, despite working in a famine culture. Legions of great teachers get out of bed each morning and head for their classrooms, determined to overcome the constraints of circumstance. Year after year they create a vibrant learning environment for their students and themselves by cultivating an abundance perspective.

First and foremost, they understand that their students are the ultimate resource in their classrooms. Whether school budgets are fat or shaved to the bone, every year they get an unlimited supply of human potential — the raw material of their success. So they prospect relentlessly for each student’s capacities: their experiences, knowledge and talents, to build the strength of the class. Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of Dreamkeepers, observed that good educators possess a “sociopolitical consciousness” that helps students understand that educational achievement isn’t just an individual matter. The whole community benefits from an individual’s achievement, and an individual’s failure diminishes the life of the community.

Teachers bent on building this type of cooperative culture see their students as allies and companions on an adventure in which everyone gets smarter. They consistently use strategies that convey their passionate belief that every child is capable of learning, teaching, leading and becoming an expert, so they end up spending their days with smart, interesting students with a robust appetite for learning.

Abundance-minded teachers reach out to parents and other adults who can help them tap into the rich cultural resources of the neighborhood. And they routinely connect with colleagues, recognizing them as a superb source of nourishment. Over lunch, during coffee breaks, even in snatches of conversations in the hallway they compound their talents through cooperation and exchange. Rather than sitting in the lounge, listening to a handful of faminists reciting a litany of bad news, like-minded strivers caucus to generate new ideas. They form book clubs or hit the local happy hour, sharing their latest innovations while soaking up much needed social and emotional support. Some of these collegial connections bloom into lifelong friendships.

And finally, these teachers never lose sight of themselves as learners, dedicated to the idea that to be truly alive one simply must explore, grow and change. So they cherish a career that offers abundant opportunities to nurture a rich intellectual life. They become mentors, train student teachers, write for professional journals, join organizations dedicated to their discipline or current passion, present at conferences, attend teacher institutes and read, read, read. By concocting this alchemical mix from the human potential of their students, colleagues, community and their own self-determination, they thrive — even in a famine culture.

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