President Obama (and his predecessor, President Bush) has addressed the national shortage of math and science teachers several times in various official addresses on education. Both suggested recruiting more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers—in the tens of thousands per year. However, research shows that we lose almost 30,000 existing STEM teachers annually. We have a problem whose solution is based in retention, not recruitment.
I am a STEM teacher entering my fourth year. Typically this is when a teacher starts to consider leaving the profession; I have on many occasions, but not because of a lack of passion for educating kids. Dealing with low pay, lack of autonomy and student behavior issues are a part of the job—a part that all teachers sign up for—but if the combined toll of those factors is too high a teacher will surely burn out by the end of their fifth year.
A teacher's job satisfaction sits on a very fragile precipice. The rhetoric in any given teacher's lounge gives you the feeling of being in the galley of a sailing ship rather than a professional community. This sense of quasi-indentured service bruises easier than a peach and doesn't recover well. So, how do we go about retaining STEM teachers?
This is the most often-touted solution for solving the retention problem. STEM teachers have other options in the private sector, many more that are directly related to their specializations than perhaps any other teacher in a public school. These options, perhaps unsurprisingly, pay more.
Increasing pay has a weak effect on retention because of the naturally altruistic tendencies of teachers. We are gluttons for the service mode of thinking, and while I would love to take home a fatter paycheck, I have to admit that I wouldn't do a better job for more money. I don't relate my pay to my performance. The psychology just doesn't work that way; teachers do their jobs well outside of business hours—for no pay—on a regular basis.
However a recent study out of Penn State has concluded that it is not initial pay, but the salary schedule cap that indicates whether a teacher will stay when they're thinking about money. So, perhaps our altruism manages to recognize a low ceiling when it sees one and bows out after a few years.
Better Working Conditions
What teachers seem to be thinking about even more than cash are their working conditions. Imagine you're asked to do the nearly impossible job of teaching everyone you meet to play a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, even those without lips. At first you'd balk, but, believing in your charge, you carry on. Then the real challenge drops: You're going to get one trumpet, no recording equipment, 15 sheets of staff paper each year, and professional training from your administrators on how to teach saxophone.
The same researchers out of Penn State found that this is exactly what causes STEM teachers to close up shop and jump to the private sector. When asked to educate every American child, a teacher can't stand to enter their own classroom when they know the system is set up to make that task even more difficult. They’d rather quit than face that daily.
We need good science and math teachers, and we need them to be relaxed, inventive and supported. The solution is not to blindly throw money at the problem. Instead, increased funding needs to be used to create an environment that allows STEM teachers to feel like they can actually succeed at the herculean task of teaching all of their students to be mathematically and scientifically literate.
That environment has a well-funded equipment closet with a budget for repairs and updates.
That environment has professional development designed for STEM teachers that increases knowledge of how to deal with student misconceptions, new technology, and the latest research.
That environment has a cogent administration dedicated not to dealing with students only when problems arise, but instead, focused on creating a student body of thoughtful citizens.
Without autonomy, teachers don’t have the ability to make decisions that are best for student learning. Instead of being leaders on campus, they’re relegated to merely implementing others' ideas—ideas which, because of their experience, teachers often know don’t work.
If President Obama—or Bush, now that he has some time on his hands—would really like to keep the United States competitive, he can focus on creating an environment that retains those altruistic, creative STEM teachers that graduated from college with other options before they go the way of the Space Shuttle.