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It’s a new school year, and Jake Miller hasn’t set up a classroom in central Pennsylvania. He doesn’t know the new group of eighth graders in his social studies class. After 15 years in teaching, he quit.
“When I taught about how the Civil War was fought over racism and slavery, I was accused of teaching critical race theory.
Several parents complained but were not satisfied with the school board’s response.
“So they took this to a state representative who was using it as a dog whistle,” he said.
It was all too much, Miller said. He cannot teach the Civil War without teaching him about racism and slavery. But that incident wasn’t the only thing that made him leave.
“There were other moments before that,” he said. “It looked like a cherry on top.”
The shortage of replacement teachers made it difficult to take time off when the children were sick. Low wages. Lack of respect from parents and politicians. lack of resources; and, of course, a pandemic.
“There have been attacks on education for quite some time,” said Miller. “The pandemic was too heavy. It was the albatross that dragged me in. And I knew I needed to turn around.”
Today, as a business consultant, he earns 50% more than he did when he worked as a teacher.
With teachers like Miller gone, the Pennsylvania Department of Education says the shortage is real. A spokesperson said thousands of new teachers and educators in other roles could be needed over the next three years or the problem could become chronic.
Other districts in states across the country are also scrambling to find and retain enough teachers to lead classrooms as educators cope with burnout.
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Teachers are also facing some unprecedented challenges. A school board meeting devolves into confusion over COVID policy. A battle stemming from a politicized and misunderstood panic over critical racial theories. a book ban; and a call to arm teachers in the face of gun violence.
Educators are at the forefront of these social rifts that frighten them.
Miller said he was unsure if he would return to teaching.
“Honestly, teachers need to be treated like professionals, regain their dignity, and get the public to support them so that people like me consider it.
Expect more without support
Teachers across the country are doing calculations similar to Miller’s.
Last year, a colleague of Alexander Calderon suddenly quit. Overnight, he went from being his 7th grade English teacher to also being a social studies teacher.
“I felt like there was little to no support in terms of understanding this new curriculum,” says Calderon. “I was really at my breaking point and was just thinking of leaving.”
So he opened the notes app on his phone and started writing a list.
Job Pros: Salary was relatively okay. His colleagues were supportive. He wanted to be there for his students.
Cons: Little support from government. He had two teacher jobs. School morale was terrible. And he was watching one teacher after the next vacation.
His list of cons has gotten a little long, but this week Calderon started a new school year teaching both English and social studies. His list is still saved on the phone.
“Children are my number one priority,” he said. “Seeing what the kids were interested in and getting to know them as people ultimately drove me to stay.”
He also said he was the only staff member at the middle school who could speak Spanish. He recalls when a student from Nicaragua entered the school. He saw the boy’s mother struggling to understand and communicate with the system.
“It made me think of my mother who is struggling in the American education system,” he said.
Calderon came to the rescue. There is another reason why he does not quit.
“I felt morally obligated to stay,” he said.
Teach with anger and love
Then there are teachers like Eric Hale who are willing to go through it no matter what. He is his first grade teacher at the Dallas Independent School District.
In 2021, she was named Texas-wide Teacher of the Year, becoming the first African-American to win the honor.
“I got to meet these incredible educators who represented the state, and I got to meet the president. It was a whole yearlong bonding experience,” he said. Only me and a state teacher in Illinois are still active in the classroom.”
He said he knew why they left.
“Many of them, especially teachers of color, are tired of fighting a system that wasn’t necessarily designed for people who look like me or the children I serve to succeed.” I’m tired of the disrespect for and most importantly, the lack of reward.”
But when asked if he was leaving, Hale said no.
“Because I’m in a position and I’m privileged to be changing the face of education,” he said.
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Growing up as a black student in a poor neighborhood with no support system, Hale never had a teacher who looked like him. There was no teacher who truly understood his needs.
“So I’m angry teaching. I’m chasing the ghost of the teacher I wanted as a kid,” he said.
He remembers having to go to church to eat because his family could not always afford food. .
“I grew up abused and traumatized in an underserved area for generations,” he said. “Sadly, I never had good teachers. Only teachers who made a difference.”
He is now a daily teacher in a first grade classroom. There, many students live in poverty, and schools lack the textbooks and facilities found in public schools in wealthier areas.
“I’m fighting for these kids because I know the potential because I teach in the same type of neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. I firmly believe that bright minds come from the darkest places.”
In the meantime, he has been watching this tumult over critical race theory across the country. He said it was ridiculous to pay.
“They are trying to criminalize good teaching,” he said.
He said it was a political weapon to stop teachers like him. A teacher who thinks about the race, ethnicity, and situation of each student and how to support the connection between students.
“I teach all my children to serve the Texas curriculum, and add literature and first-hand imagery to that curriculum so that they can become doctors, lawyers, novelists, and writers. It inspires them,” he said. “By bringing in people from the same region.”
“Because I’m African-American, I have to do research and find good Hispanic leaders because most of the people I serve are Hispanic.” I wish I could bring in an official.Somebody would have brought in a sitting congressman, senator, mayor….Representatives matter.”
Hale is a fashionable dresser. She wears it with an emerald green tie, navy blazer and bright orange pocket square. His classroom has a DJ booth that plays his songs. Each one is named after a student, with beats and melodies tailored to the student’s personality.
“Every song is special and unique, just like kids,” he said. “Because I would sit at home and say, ‘Jamie is very active. His legs are always moving. That’s why I like this drum. It makes a little click.'” I can explain the songs to them and it makes me feel so special and so loved. “
That’s what he wanted as a kid. That’s why Eric Hale teaches.
Jake Miller, who retired from teaching, said he got the job thanks to a teacher who inspired him to go to college in the first place in his family.
Alexander Calderon teaches public schools to build bridges for students who need him.
And they all look to the future of education with hope, whether they stay or leave.
“I have two young sons,” said Miller. “So trust me that I want their education to be as good or better than the one I got.”
“I know that in the long run there will always be teachers in the classroom who are trying their best,” Calderon said.
And Hale leaves little to chance.
They said the future is in these students. But what that future looks like will depend on whether the educators at the front of the room feel it’s worthy enough to stay.
Taylor Haney contributed to this report.