The beginning of the school year is an exciting time as we welcome students to our schools to begin or continue their rigorous academic journeys. At ND United, it is our hope that our kids had a fun-filled summer, learning about the world around them and their place in it. We further hope that teachers return invigorated after a restful and restorative summer, despite having to work to advance their educations and at second jobs to help make ends meet.

We are confident that when the year begins, North Dakota’s teachers and education support professionals will do what they have always done and put our students at the center of their intentions. They do this because they know that effective teaching and learning is predicated on great relationships between students and teachers, and teachers work hard every day to build and nurture those relationships.

And why do teachers and ESP do what they do? They do it because they take to heart their obligation to educate every child that walks, runs, rolls or is carried through our schoolhouse doors. They know that we do not do anything as a society more important than educating our future, and they are singularly committed to that trust.

So, while teachers return to their schools with the necessary passion to provide outstanding educational opportunities for their students, they are doing so in exceedingly challenging times, indeed. The teacher shortage that is gripping ND and the nation is real, persistent and comes with effects that will have long-term negative consequences for education, unless they are carefully mitigated.

So, how did we get to this point? Like most vexing issues, there is not a single factor that one can point to as the cause of the teacher shortage. I would argue that the current situation can be traced to the 1983 release of “Nation at Risk,” an overwrought report that made the case for robust federal intervention in education to support vulnerable students, aid higher education and research, and protect civil rights. Of course, these suggestions were ignored and replaced with calls for vouchers, privatization and the elimination of the Department of Education — all things the report did not mention.

Soon, public education became a mainstay on the political battlegrounds of the 1990s and 2000s resulting in the unfortunate George W. Bush administration plan — No Child Left Behind — and Barack Obama’s equally misguided Race to the Top. Each of these policies dismissed the expertise of teachers, diminished their autonomy in the classroom, and deemphasized the importance of well-prepared professional educators.

In more recent years, the debate about public education has become even more intense as education has taken its place in the crosshairs of culture warriors across the nation. We have seen school board meetings erupt in vitriol and occasional violence over issues like face masks, Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Curriculum Transparency. Irresponsibly false claims that teachers were indoctrinating students to hate America were frequently heard.

In North Dakota, CRT is not now, nor has it ever been a part of the curriculum in any school district. Coronavirus mitigation decisions were made by locally elected school boards acting in the best interests of their students. And if parents want to know what is taught in their child’s classroom, all they need to do is talk to their child’s teacher or their school’s administrator. No one is trying to be enigmatic when it comes to the education of our state’s children.

Yet these facts have not stopped at least one out of state “think tank” from taking steps to move into North Dakota to sow discord and shake the well-deserved confidence parents have in our system of public education. The Center of the American Experiment, based in Minnesota, held a series of meetings to alarm parents that their schools are teaching CRT and gender theory (whatever that is), and that our school libraries are stocked with books promoting CRT even though there is a law prohibiting CRT in ND’s PK-12 public schools.

Is it any wonder teachers are either considering leaving or have left the profession? Believe me, many are and have. A January survey of ND United education members revealed that the number of teachers who, when hired, saw themselves retiring from the profession after a lengthy career fell from 90% to 41%. In the age 30-39 demographic, that number dropped from 91% to just 26%.

So, what can be done to reverse course and recruit and retain the enthusiastic and high caliber teachers our kids need and deserve?

I recently studied this issue as a task force member working with AFT. Based on our study, we developed recommendations that we believe will help mitigate the effects of the teacher shortage. Among other things, they include:

  • Revitalizing the educator pipeline.
  • Creating positive working and learning conditions.
  • Developing sustainable and commensurate compensation and benefits.
  • Utilizing our Union to accelerate change where change is required!

In short, we must support teachers in their practice, respect their professionalism, pay them like the professionals they are, and promote the teaching and education support professions proportionate with the vital roles they play in our society. As I mentioned earlier, we do not do anything as a society more important than educating our future. Let’s insist that our great state does just that!