Looking To The Future (2): The Teacher Problem

The next aspect of the “teacher problem” which our schools face is closely related to the procurement aspect which we discussed last time. For this reason we choose to discuss it next also. It is the problem of KEEPING OUR TEACHERS.

It lies in the very nature of the case that these two aspects of the teacher problem are very closely related. The two, namely, the procurement of a teach­ing staff and the maintenance of a permanent teach­ing staff, are, in fact, interrelated. On the one hand, it is evident that the problem of procuring teachers declines to the extent that the teaching staff is perma­nent. The school board that can hang a “no vacancy” sign out in regard to its teaching staff, that can at contract time hand out new contracts to all its teach­ers and receive them signed after a while, that is not troubled with the mid-term departure of its teachers, is indeed fortunate: it has no teacher procurement problem at all. And well may it do all in its power to maintain the status quo, when once it has a perma­nent staff of qualified teachers. On the other hand, it is also true that the school board which gives proper attention to the procurement problem, and which does not hastily obtain a number of signed contracts only in order to be rid of that “headache” for another year, will also be more successful in maintaining a permanent teaching staff.

This aspect of the problem too is a rather general one in the educational field. And especially in the past 10 or 15 years the incidence of contract jumping, of changing schools, and of departing altogether from the teaching profession on the part of those who once took up this work have been on the increase. Anyone reading the daily papers could read reports from all over our country telling us of the troubles which schools faced because of this condition. And in gen­eral I think that we may say that the causes contribut­ing to this problem for our own schools are the same as those facing all schools, although there may be ex­ceptions in some cases, and although this problem of maintaining a permanent teaching staff may also assume certain aspects which are peculiar to our own schools and peculiar to a Reformed school board and a Reformed teacher.

What are some of the contributing factors in this problem?

In the first place, there is the generally unsettled condition of our times, which has affected also the field of education. In our age, as never before, all things seem to be in a state of flux and, simultaneous­ly, in a state of uncertainty. In a large measure, per­haps, this is due to the international situation. We live in an age when the giants of the world are striv­ing for mastery. There has been no peace in our world, even from the world’s point of view, for more than a decade. Always the world is teetering on the brink of conflict, of world war, if not engulfed in it. Everyone is haunted by the fear of a war the like of which we have not seen before. And, as a result, un­certainty and “jumpiness” seems to characterize all of life. It is well-nigh impossible to live on an even keel. Life is one big rush, a seeking for something—we know not what. And always there is a feeling of dissatisfaction, a search for some elusive pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow. One can notice this in almost every sphere of life. Governments are held in the throes of this tide of fear and uncertainty and doubt. The church has not at all been left untouched by the situation and by the manner of thought and action that goes paired with it. One can feel the clutches of its tentacles in the pulpit and on ec­clesiastical assemblies, as well as mark its devastating progress in the contemporary history of the church. Almost one feels that it is a losing battle to raise a cry of warning against the seemingly inexorable and inevitable tendency away from everything that is right and sane, against what can only be a mad rush to destruction. Business and industry, commerce and agriculture, home and family—all of life is in a state of upheaval, so that almost this sort of life begins to seem normal, and a generation is rising, or perhaps has already arisen, which knows no other mode of living.

We may mention a few of the factors which are part and parcel of this generally unsettled condition in the affairs of men.

One of the most direct consequences of it is the factor of military training. Our young men, as mat­ters now stand, cannot map out their educational future because of the uncertain factor of that notice of induction into the armed forces. Whether it should or not, is not the question we are discussing at the moment. But that the possibility and the probability of being called to the colors does interfere with the education and the desire for education on the part of many is a fact which cannot be challenged. The pos­sibility of starting one’s college training, training to be a teacher; perhaps, only to have it abruptly in­terrupted by the draft after a year or so, or even in mid-term, discourages not a few from even entering college. It deters some from deciding upon their life’s work. They assume an attitude of waiting—or they enlist. Besides, the same threat of military service as­sails some of our male teachers, so that school boards may even be loath to engage a man who is eligible for the draft. Perhaps a universal military training plan may overcome this to an extent. For if military training becomes something normal, as it has been for years already in other countries, so that a young man may figure from the outset on losing 18 months or 2 years to the government at, say, the age of 18, then the situation will be more or less stabilized. But as matters now stand, there is too much uncertainty in the foreseeable future of any young man.

A second element that seems to be paired with this upset condition is the economic situation. We have an inflated and boom economy—something by the way, which also seems to become the normal thing, at least in our thinking. And as usual in times like these, materialistic tendencies come to the fore. People are money mad. Everyone is out to grab as much as he possibly can. On the one hand, except where salaries of teachers are standardized, this has led to an in­creasing incidence in the teaching profession also of changing positions due to the lure of higher salaries and better working conditions. On the other hand, it has led to an alarming trend to neglect and forsake the teaching profession altogether. The lure of high wages, especially in war industries, has beckoned too many teachers in the past years, and has deterred many a high school graduate from even training for any pro­fession, let alone that of a teacher. The inevitable result is a shortage of teachers and an inability to maintain a permanent teaching staff. And the cumula­tive result of all these factors is that the problem grows more difficult as times goes on. As the short­age of teacher’s increases, competition among schools becomes more keen, and teachers are more inclined to “change schools”. Undoubtedly there is an economic reason behind all this. It is a fact that the income of those who are professionally employed has not kept pace with the income of the laboring man or the farm­er. And from this viewpoint alone, it is understand­able that the teaching profession is being forsaken and neglected.

Another element to which we may call attention is that of the over-emphasis on training for the trades and technical skills which has found its way into col­leges which formerly were devoted solely to training for the professions. Our educational institutions are being geared more and more to the highly industrial­ized and mechanized age in which we live. To an ex­tent this is undoubtedly necessary. But the fact re­mains that there is a vast difference between a trades school and college. And our colleges should not be transformed into trade’s schools, be the trades ever so skilled, so that they grant degrees for anything under the sun. This tendency has been to the detriment of the teaching profession and the teacher supply. It has been a factor in molding the minds of teachers and would-be teachers, and in casting their minds into a different mold than that of the teaching profession. The entire emphasis on training for various technical skills, sometimes by means of “quickie” courses, with the lure of a college diploma and even a degree dangled at the end of a course, and the materialistic promise of a more or less dignified position and especially of high wages as an added attraction, is detrimental.

It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I mention what undoubtedly is a major contributing factor to the inability to maintain a permanent and stabilized teaching staff, namely, the fact that to a large degree our schools are staffed by women teach­ers. With all respect to the small percentage of de­voted women who have made teaching their life’s work (and I am not too old to remember fondly some of such women teachers whom I did not always ap­preciate as a child), and with due regard to the fact that if it were not for women teachers coming to the rescue many a school would be teacher-less, I never­theless maintain that on the whole the school which has a larger percentage of male teachers will also have a more permanent teaching staff. For the facts are these. By far the majority of our women teachers either entertain marriage plans at the time they begin to teach, or they are easily tempted to give up teach­ing in favor of marriage when the opportunity pre­sents itself. And this means that teaching is some­thing temporal for them, rather than a career. And such temporary teachers are an asset to the extent that they furnish a school with teachers for a time, but they are a liability in two respects. On the one hand, they prevent the stabilization of the teaching staff. And on the other hand, their determination to teach only temporarily must needs color all their work. It affects their diligence and initiative, as well as their long range objectives and ambitions. They have a “job” for a little while, rather than a life’s calling and work. The male teacher, however, is much more likely to be entering his life’s work when he begins to teach. He will treat it as such, and will, therefore, all other things being equal, be more per­manent, more diligent, have a longer range point of view, devote his entire life to his work, rather than sell a certain amount of his time for a certain amount of the school’s money. Besides, the male teacher most probably has or will have the stabilizing influence of a family to support and maintain, which undoubted­ly serves as a deterrent in the matter of changing positions and changing vocations. The fact is, how­ever, that a large percentage, if not the majority, of today’s teachers are women. Undoubtedly there are reasons for this, but just now we are dealing with the fact rather than the reason. And this fact contributes to the teacher problem, without question.

As far as the schools are concerned, the effects of this aspect of the teacher problem are in the main the same as those which we mentioned in connection with the teacher-procurement problem. Only one we would add. It is this. The lack of a permanent teaching staff plays a large part in preventing a school from functioning as a unit. Your children are not just attending one grade at a time; they are attending a whole school. And the principal and all the teachers are responsible for the pupils not only one grade at a time, but as long as they are in school. The school whose teaching staff is constantly changing will find it difficult to function in this respect. When 50 per cent of the staff leaves one year, and the other 50 per cent leave the second year, the pupil suffers. He faces an entirely new school within two years’ time. Besides, the temporary teacher may give due attention to his class, but he will not give due attention to his career as a teacher of a certain grade or a certain subject in a particular school and a peculiar com­munity. He cannot, because he has no career to at­tend to. A temporary teacher, for example, will not very likely contribute anything worthwhile to the development of a Protestant Reformed “philosophy” of education, or to the application of our principles in any branch of education at all.

If we bear these and other effects in mind, the problem is serious.

And it is a problem for teachers, for would-be teachers, and for boards; but it is also a problem for you, the parents. What can you do about it?