On Sunday mornings our radio dial is full of different local church services. Sometimes I catch singers singing, sometimes a preacher preaching. This morning as I was driving to school to attend to some tasks so I could sleep well tonight (if you have ever been a teacher you know about those back-to-school-after-a-break nightmares), the preacher said, “There is no success without a successor.” This made me reflect on a recent disappointment; I was not selected as a finalist for the Mississippi Teacher of the Year. My application essays were riddled with this idea of inspiring the next generations of teachers, in particular math teachers. So, in that spirit I share one of my essays with you. Maybe I’ll share some of the others in the weeks to come.
Prompt: The Mississippi Teacher of the Year serves as a spokesperson and representative for all teachers and students. If you are chosen as the 2023 Mississippi Teacher of the Year, what would be your message? What will you communicate to your profession and to the public? (maximum 750 words)
The Three New R’s: Rapid Recruitment and Retention of Teachers.
Approximately 15 years ago, I visited my high school calculus teacher and as her eyes twinkled, she told me how proud she was; I was the only high school math teacher she had ever produced. Instead of making me feel warm inside, it chilled me to the bone. I realized it was not enough to make my students appreciate the beauty and utility of mathematics. It was not enough to have them learn the essential math to buoy their future academic studies into the fields of engineering, medicine, architecture, education and accounting, or to help them score well enough on entrance exams for enlisting in the military and enrolling in technical programs. I needed to inspire math teachers. The dearth of high-quality math teachers is a nationwide problem and is particularly dire in Mississippi. I thought briefly of earning a doctorate and working at a university, but quickly jettisoned that plan because by then, I believed it might be too late.
Though programs such as Mississippi Teacher Corps, the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, Student Loan forgiveness, and others, are invaluable, there is no more fertile ground than our own classrooms for sparking teacher interest. What I have done in the past 15 years is consciously lift up the teaching profession in front of my students. Current teachers can model the joy and satisfaction of their chosen profession and plant the seed of teaching as a possible career path in their students’ minds.
I start by including a series of questions on their interest inventory at the beginning of the year. Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher? If yes, what subject? If no, why not? Most answer NO and give a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with low pay and rude students. Fine. I’ll figure out who my natural teachers are by watching them collaborate in groups. Then, as I facilitate these carefully crafted groups through hours of instruction and practice, I compliment the students who enjoy explaining the material to their peers. Wow Lily, I think you like explaining this even more than you like working the problems! Finally, I always have side conversations about their interests and what they’d like to do in the future. I am happy to report that several of my former students are middle and high school math teachers, many of whom were planning other paths until I strongly suggested they rethink their choices. Even one of my former students who is an English teacher does ACT Math prep with her juniors!
As if the decades-long teacher shortage weren’t enough, The Pandemic sent teachers into early retirement or into completely different fields. This year we have an unprecedented 18 out of 65 teachers in our high school who are new to us, and many are new to the profession. We were lucky to get them. If selected as the Mississippi Teacher of the Year, my message would involve not the three old R’s: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic; but the three new R’s: Rapid Recruitment and Retention.
Teaching is the only profession that grows all other professions. They are true community helpers, building the foundations of our futures. Teaching is a craft which takes decades to perfect and yet one can make a difference in someone’s life on their first day. Current teachers must have a “boots on the ground” approach to recruiting teachers, and they also must support new teachers by bringing them into the fold, explaining school culture, and being available to answer questions. Veteran teachers must speak up to administrators when teachers are overwhelmed or confused. Administrators must actively listen to teachers and elicit their advice on making improvements to enhance student success and decrease teacher burnout.
At this point, I am likely in the twilight of my decades-long teaching career, however it brings me so much joy to watch my former students excel in all aspects of their lives whether it is as a parent, a police officer, an engineer, a doctor, a yoga instructor, an entrepreneur, and many other roles too numerous to mention. I am proud of all of them but I am especially proud of all my students who are now teachers, sparking that love of learning and teaching in their own classrooms. If we could Rapidly Recruit and Retain teachers, their influence would fan out and keep the process going for generations. We could turn the tide and the teacher shortage would be a distant memory.