It’s been stated for some time that there’s a teacher shortage. In the past, to reduce a shortage of teachers, states have paid tuition in exchange for working a certain number of years in the state. Virginia has done that.

However, offering these incentives doesn’t seem to be as effective as it once was. In addition, Virginia has several high-need areas for which localities may offer bonuses to individuals who will work in these subjects. In recent years, elementary school educators have been added to that list. However, these incentives haven’t seemed to make a difference either.

There used to be a glut of college graduates specializing in elementary education, so positions were easily filled. Math, science and technology spots have always been difficult to fill, because those individuals can make more money in the private sector.

Special education has been difficult to fill, as well. Fewer people choose a career in special education due to increased regulations and a tremendous increase in students with special needs. Some of these students are extremely difficult to work with. Those working in special education have been bitten, spat upon, yelled at, hit or kicked. In some cases, teachers are able to diffuse these situations before they erupt, but not always. It takes a very special person to work in this area. Often they’re not supported by parents or administrators. It is highly stressful and they burn out quickly.

Elementary schoolteachers, you say, have the little ones—they aren’t under that much pressure. Think again. Kindergarten is no longer centered on play, naps, and learning colors and letters. Children this age are now expected to master what used to be first-grade material. Testing is intense at the elementary level. The number of elementary Standards of Learning tests have been reduced recently, but teachers still spend hours gathering data and analyzing to pinpoint areas of need for particular students. Many of the opportunities for learning through fun and play have been removed from the daily schedule. The stress level is high for students and teachers.

Fewer teachers encourage young people to go into teaching as a profession because it isn’t teaching anymore. If teachers were actually allowed to teach, they would be able to develop their lessons along the interests and needs of their students. They wouldn’t be rigidly structured to meet a data point for a standardized test.

There is an exodus—teachers leaving the profession. Many leave of their own free will, but some experienced teachers are forced out because they’re at the top of the pay scale or they’re deemed by someone to be “too old.”

We’re losing those who actually know how to teach. Administrators place unrealistic expectations on teachers and don’t respect them as professionals. Those who decide they can no longer take the stress mourn the fact that they can’t do what they love. They’re blamed for students not achieving some arbitrary goal. In reality, there are circumstances beyond their control that affect student achievement. Much of the time, teachers are not to blame.

So do we have a shortage, or have we created such a hostile, stressful environment that few feel they can make a difference working in the classroom? With fewer teachers, class sizes increase, inexperienced substitutes fill the spots and our children suffer.

We must reverse the misconception that spending trillions of tax dollars on more testing will actually improve education. We must put that money into addressing the needs of students and teacher salaries. We must allow teachers to have the autonomy to do what they know their students need. Then, perhaps, teaching will be a desirable profession once again.

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Elizabeth Hutchins is a

former educator and Culpeper County School Board member.

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