AJC Op-ed on Teacher Attraction and Retention

The following is the complete unedited text of the Op-ed sent to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution which appeared in edited form on September 14, 2008.

The recent mid-career and second career teachers studies released by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation substantiate much of what the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) has been advocating for decades. Since our inception in 1970,and for 100 years previously, when we were the racially-separated Georgia Education Association and the Georgia Teachers and Education Association, GAE has stood firm for working tirelessly for those who nurture, guide, and teach our children.

This work has included, among many other things, fighting to attract and retain quality teachers who are the linchpin within this critically-important institution we call public education. Throughout the decades we have steadfastly maintained that included among the requirements to meet the growing need for teachers and educational support professionals was to make salaries competitive with the general marketplace, maintain decent working and learning conditions, and provide ongoing, relevant professional development . In fact, the top two important “Action for Policymakers” in one study, “Teaching As A Second Career,” were salaries (43%) and working conditions (30%). These always have been part of our legislative priorities for which our organization often has been vilified and reprimanded as being self-serving.

But as an organization made up of dedicated professionals who work on the front line of public education, we always have had our ears to the ground. We hear about the wonderful triumphs -- as well as the problems and deficiencies. We hear about when the hard work is worth it -- and when it isn’t. We take this firsthand knowledge to the Capitol every January and speak to whoever will listen for the direct betterment of the profession and most importantly, Georgia’s children. They are the reason we do this.  

The same study concluded that there are many who would, and do, go into the teaching profession because “they want to make a difference,” but they must (like any other professional) practically balance that with their financial needs and aspirations. Whether anyone believes that’s right or wrong, it is a stark reality. And it is a reality that directly affects the profession and public education.  

“Teaching As A Second Career” also confirms other known issues we have realized firsthand such as a reluctance to go to urban and rural areas, whether teaching will pay in the long term, being able to afford healthcare, whether fast-track programs are adequately preparing them for the realities of a classroom, and when they are in the classroom, having mentors and enough support to guard against burnout in the first three to five years.   The other study, “Encore Performances: Tapping the Potential of Mid-career and Second-Career Teachers,” suggests that many of the teacher preparation and alternative certification programs, especially ones that cater to career changers, may need “considerable re-engineering” to implement recommended changes that will make them more effective in the classroom.

Some of these changes include being more selective in identifying strong candidates, taking more into account how adults learn, and slanting pedagogy more for diverse learners and providing more real life clinical experience. GAE agrees with this and always has had concerns regarding the recent effort to “fast track” individuals into the classroom. Not because, as some have said, to protect the status quo, but because in order for these individuals to be successful, no matter how well-versed they are in their real-life subject matter, they will be placed in front of children ranging from 5 to 18 years old. In order for them to have their best chance to teach, and the children to have the best chance to learn, they must be grounded in the preparation for the reality of our classrooms. Yes, there will be a few “naturals,” but it is our main goal to have every child succeed and that takes a highly-qualified and fully-prepared teacher.  

This study also confirms that there are many people, both first career and mid or second career, who are either considering or have considered teaching. That is wonderful news. GAE members can tell you that it is very hard, but very rewarding work. They also will tell you that we will continue to be a partner in addressing the concerns that we know they have and have been highlighted by these studies.  

We welcome discussions and exchanges of ideas on ways to attract, recruit, and retain highly-qualified, fully-prepared teachers for our classrooms. This includes alternative compensation for teachers. GAE has started working on a tiered compensation package for future consideration by the Georgia State Legislature. We attempted to introduce this during the Barnes’ administration, but HB 1187, The A+ Education Act, quickly overshadowed all other education legislation.

While we will never be in favor of any compensation package based solely on performance, we are very much open to the discussion and study of compensation models where performance could be a part of an overall package of educator pay.   We also strongly feel that longevity in the service of Georgia’s children should be honored financially. This coincides with the findings in “Teaching As A Second Career” that showed that potential teachers are concerned about their financial security over the long term.   While we work to make things better for the teaching profession, we invite those who feel called to serve to join the 100,000- plus dedicated educators who do this good work for Georgia’s 1.6 million children in our public schools.  

Jeff Hubbard
President Georgia Association of Educators