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Minnesota Opinion: As long as schools are violent, it will be hard to retain teachers

From the editorial: As the new school year approaches, teachers need to know that they have the full support of their administrators and district officials.

School students
A file photo of school students in west central Minnesota.
Tribune file photo
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Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools recently announced a substantial pay increase for substitute teachers. Subs will earn $135 per day this year, up from the $100 rate that had been in place for more than a decade.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
Minnesota Opinion editorial
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K-M didn't make this move out of generosity, or in response to inflation and the resulting increase in the cost of living. No, the school district made this move because it is desperate for substitute teachers — and it isn't alone.

School districts across southeastern Minnesota, and indeed the entire state, already faced a shortage of full-time teachers and substitutes before the COVID-19 pandemic. That challenge has now become a full-blown crisis, as the complexities of distance learning, COVID protocols and other pandemic-related difficulties in the classroom pushed thousands of teachers and subs to pursue other careers or to retire early.

How serious is this problem? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, America's public schools currently employ 567,000 fewer educators than they did before the pandemic.

Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, last month called the situation “disheartening” and “scary.” She said that while Minnesota has struggled for years to recruit new teachers, retention also is a big problem. “Once they get into the profession, how do we keep them there?”

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That's the heart of the issue in our public schools today, and substitute teachers can provide an interesting case study. While we hope that the pay increase will attract more people into K-M's pool of potential substitutes, we know that the true test will be whether these new subs show up for a second day of work. And then a third.

The wages probably won't be the deciding factor, and it isn't for full-time teachers, either.

While Minnesota needs to do a better job of recruiting new teachers through better pay and increased flexibility in the certification process, we'd argue that a decent salary alone won't keep bright young people in this field. After all, almost no one goes into teaching for the money, and those who do seldom stick around for long.

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Ask long-time teachers why they chose this career and they'll likely talk about intangible rewards, about the joy of seeing lights go on in a child's eyes, about the satisfaction of knowing they've helped hundreds of kids along life's journey. A lot of people teach simply because they can't imagine doing anything else. They love school, they love the kids, and they embrace the daily challenge of being at the front of a classroom.

But right now, that love of teaching is being sorely tested.

To put the matter bluntly, teachers no longer command the respect and authority they once enjoyed. Far too many “involved” parents constantly question teachers' decisions regarding subject matter, classroom procedures, grading and discipline, and when a student is struggling, too often it's a teacher who takes the blame.

That parental lack of respect for teachers trickles down to kids, which leads to big problems in the classroom. A study by the American Psychological Association this spring found that nationwide, 14% of teachers were physically attacked by a student in the past year, and more than one-third experienced harassment and/or a threat of violence from a student. Those numbers don't include the growing problem violence or threats from disgruntled parents.

Is it any wonder, then, that of the 15,000 teachers who participated in this survey, 43% said they want to quit teaching?

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Rochester is from immune from this trend. While there have been just a couple documented incidents of student assaults against school staff in the past several years, we've heard enough anecdotal, off-the-record reports to convince us that violence against teachers is a serious, ongoing problem.

A line must be drawn, and it should be drawn in concrete, not sand.

As the new school year approaches, teachers need to know that they have the full support of their administrators and district officials. To that end, every student in middle school and high school, and every parent of such students, should be informed of a zero-tolerance policy regarding violence against teachers.

No teacher should be punched or shoved by a student, then see that same student in the hallway one week later. One strike and such students should be out. Rochester has plenty of higher-security educational settings for kids who refuse to play by the rules, and it's unfair for rule-following students to endure the disruptions caused by troublemakers who think they can get away with anything.

If it sounds like we are advocating for stricter discipline in the classroom — well, we are. While we are aware that Rochester for years has been dealing with apparent racial disparities in disciplinary enforcement, we'd argue that teachers need the authority (and security backup, if necessary) to create and maintain positive learning environments in their classrooms. That can't happen if a disruptive student is sent to the principal's office, only to return a few minutes later.

Regardless of their race or gender, no student should be allowed to disrespect teachers and interfere with the education of their classmates. Period. No teacher should have to turn a deaf ear when a student unleashes a profanity-laced tirade at them.

There's no time to waffle. If things don't improve soon, we'll reach the tipping point where the exodus of good, experienced teachers and the lack of eager newcomers to the profession will push more families into private schools — and turn our Minnesota's once-ballyhooed public schools into little more than warehouses for kids whose parents can't afford to send them someplace else.

Good luck finding substitute teachers then.

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This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the view of the Rochester Post Bulletin Editorial Board. Readers may send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

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