Originally published at EdWeek Teacher on my blog, Capturing the Spark (1/30/17). And for insights about public schools and teachers all over California, check out my book.
If you’re on the verge of entering the teaching profession, I applaud your choice, and request your help. You’re in a unique position to help all of us in the teaching profession. I’m hoping that the shortage of teachers will embolden you to ask some pointed questions to your prospective employers. The laws of supply and demand are working in your favor, so at the end of that interview, or even before you decide to interview, study up on your state and district and ask specific questions about their areas of weakness. You don’t have to phrase it that way, but call attention to ways in which schools need to improve if they want to attract and retain you.
You probably have some ideas already from your contact and conversations in places you might want to work. Maybe you’ve even decided exactly where you want to work. Even so, raising important issues during an interview helps establish your expectations, and if enough candidates are raising these issues from the start, hopefully districts will take note.
What topics should you ask about? You could start off by looking at this interactive map from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). Here in one place you can review and compare state-level data offering some indications about the issues teachers face. Compensation? An average teacher in Arizona is only making 6 percent of the salary of workers with comparable hours and qualifications, but if you can cross the eastern border to New Mexico, that percentage jumps to 78 percent, and your northwestern neighbors in Nevada are up to 82 percent. Ask your potential employer what the prospects are for increasing your earnings.
How about your co-workers? If you go to work in a school with an experienced and fully qualified staff, you’re likely to find more stability and more support as you learn and grow in the profession. The overall quality of the school is likely stronger if the percentage of unqualified teachers is lower. In 2014, over 28 percent of Florida teachers were in their first or second year teaching. Is your district going to have the capacity to support you in the midst of that kind of turnover? And if you’re entering the teaching profession in Colorado, inquire about the fact that over 11 percent of your state’s teachers are uncertified. Every surrounding state is much stronger in that regard: Arizona’s rate is less than half of Colorado’s, Utah’s less than half of Arizona’s, and two of Colorado’s eight neighboring states have less than a quarter of one-percent uncertified teachers (Nebraska, Wyoming).
Are you worried about standardized test scores being used in your evaluations? Those of us who’ve been watching policies evolve in this area for the past decade or more won’t be surprised by data showing how many of the hotbeds of education reform are stressing out their teachers: Indiana, Florida, Rhode Island, Tennessee, New Mexico, Louisiana, Michigan, and New York are, in order, the eight states with the highest degree of testing-related job insecurity (reported by 26 percent of teachers in Indiana, 16 percent in New York). If you’re starting out in teaching in Indiana, and in a position to cross state boundaries, you might also want to consider the added benefit that four of Indiana’s five nearest neighbors also have higher starting salaries for teachers.
If you’re in Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Maryland, or Virginia, more than 10 percent of teachers surveyed in your state plan to leave the profession (in contrast with the lowest rates, all under 4 percent, reported in Wyoming, South Dakota, Illinois, and Massachusetts). Ask your potential employer what kind of attritition they’ve had and what they’re doing to retain teachers.
Smart districts are already making changes to their hiring and retention practices, or if they’re not, they should be. Cast a wide net if you can, and see what the differences are. Who’s making more of an effort? Which districts have put more thought into what you’re going to want and need in the job?
There are many other interesting comparisons on that map from LPI, and there are also important topics are not covered: for example, they compared compensation, but not other benefits. You might also want to find out more details relating to new teacher induction and later professional learning opportunities. What about teacher leadership? If your interviewers can’t tell you the names and leadership activities of specific teachers, or at least name school sites in the districts with specific leadership practices, you may want to look elsewhere.
Be bold, new teachers! You’re in a unique position to raise questions and apply pressure that will benefit you, your students, schools, and future colleagues. Those of us already in the profession have even more of an obligation to advocate for the right policies and practices that serve our students and communities, and yes, taking good care of teachers is an essential part of that, something we need not apologize for expecting. So, no one’s off the hook in this effort. I hope new teachers see their potential and make effective use of it.
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