Digital art illustration of a school with a “help wanted” sign outside. In front of the school, a line of students leaves a school bus and some students look questioningly at the sign.
Design by Hannah Willingham.

Have you reached out to a favorite grade school teacher of yours recently? While I’m sure they would love to hear from you (whether or not they remember you), they probably don’t get much praise for their profession at the moment. It’s even possible that they may have taken the leap to another career to get better pay — or just simple respect.

A rise in teacher turnover rates coupled with a decrease in education degrees from years prior is a recipe for a cursed word of macroeconomic forecasting: a shortage. Students, along with educators, are among the first impacted. Reduced teacher-student ratios and frequent changes in staff spell serious negative effects on pupil achievement, such as diminished relationships with instructors and lower grades — a study in New York schools found that this dip particularly affects low-performing and Black students.

It’s true — we don’t have enough teachers. While there are still more grade school instructors in Michigan than 15 years ago, certain rural and under-funded districts and niche departments are experiencing an opposite trend and are scrambling to fill roles.

This contradiction, a teacher shortage during a period of high employment in the field and in general, hints at a more fundamental problem. That is, framing the issue as a “teacher shortage problem” diagnoses a symptom instead of a root cause: ever-building public pressure and unappetizing salaries.

The job description of a teacher is also getting more tense by the day. As disputes mount over so-called “woke” education, legislation that limits what teachers can discuss and hand out in class is being debated and passed in several states. Michigan’s Congress has deliberated its own versions of these laws, like House Bill 5097 (passed in the House but not in the Senate) and Senate Bill 460 (not passed in either body).

Many educational gag order bills are vague in what’s off the table, but they still allow parents to raise objections that can result in disciplinary penalties, including the revocation of teaching licenses. This murky position leaves teachers divided on how they teach uncomfortable topics, especially in history and English classes.

Teachers are also losing advocating power as their labor unions, including the Michigan Education Association, shed members and revenue across the country. Since the passage of right-to-work legislation in 2012, Michigan corporations and government agencies cannot require employees to join or pay dues to unions. This means that unions, now largely optional, don’t have the same formerly reliable foundation of workers. Employers now have more opportunities to attack union membership, and dissuaded employees can now leave if they don’t agree with the union’s more specific political opinions.

As seen on the University of Michigan’s own campus, many unionized educators find that they ought to earn more respect and compensation than what their administrators have given them. This has serious consequences for instructors and students alike, indeed from the impact of strikes and fewer education degrees, but also because teachers who cannot advocate for themselves cannot do so for their students.

The exponential growth of charter schools, which are technically public schools that can nonetheless contract private companies to manage and hire teachers, has also muddled the playing field for teachers. Although these “public school academies,” another name for charters, must follow their state’s regulations such as the processes for teacher certification, they often pay educators less and have lower rates of union membership.

In a win for organized labor, Michigan’s Senate Bill 0034 will repeal the right-to-work statute when it goes into effect on March 30 of next year. Teacher unions around the state support the bill despite their meager gains from the legislation. Thanks to the United States Supreme Court’s 2018 decision that excuses non-unionized government employees from paying union dues, public education is still a right-to-work sector unless their ruling is overturned.

Despite this setback, recent legislation in Michigan stimulates the education field and works to get educators in front of students. For example, House Bill 4294 temporarily permits school staff to substitute teach, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Funding Michigan Future Educator Fellowships provide up to $10,000 in tuition and $9,600 stipends every semester for student teachers.

These incentives are solid first steps, but they are still Band-Aids on the deeper problems in public schools. Until teachers earn robust salaries that reflect their applied time, effort and emotional labor and until they can truly advocate for themselves against adversarial administrations and paranoid parents, there will not be enough qualified instructors in Michigan’s schools.

To solve these problems would be a complex feat of economics, sociology and compromise. The polarization surrounding the topics of state budgets and inclusive curricula will likely only escalate and hinder a stable educational system. Nevertheless, Gov. Whitmer and Michigan lawmakers should fight for salaries, more than simple bonuses, and protect access to nuanced instruction. Hopefully, as debate simmers about the critical role of public education, the state and the nation as a whole will come to recognize the importance of high-quality educators in that system.

Making teachers feel stable and appreciated in their jobs is not solely a policy issue — although it is a great idea to vote and call local representatives to support schools and their faculty. But members of a community can also attend school board meetings, volunteer at school-sponsored events and take opportunities to meet with teachers. If you’re home for the summer, check in with your old school to get involved or just to reach out to that special teacher. Taking the time to interact with a community is key to fostering trust and understanding, two things schools today desperately need.

Nick Rubeck is an Opinion Columnist from Williamston, Mich. He writes about what our food, media and physical spaces can tell us about ourselves. He can be reached at