Current issues in teaching

From Academic Kids

Teaching as a job is unique in many ways. Though a school usually employs many teachers, the teachers themselves may not actually spend much time together. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness, especially if the teacher does not get along well with his or her students.

In the modern world, the traditional problems of teachers have been compounded by many societal issues. Because teachers have such intimate contact with young people, many of the problems of the young are seen as interrelated with their school environment. It is not easy to separate causes from effects, but it is possible to trace a general outline.


Up the Down Staircase

The 1965 book Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman chronicled the struggles of a middle-class teacher working in a poor urban school. This book demonstrates some of the outstanding problems a teacher faces in many modern Western countries, particularly:

  • low teacher pay and prestige
  • distant and incompetent administration
  • students with social and economic problems
  • negligent or absent parents
  • family and social burdens foisted onto teachers

These problems can be seen in many places, but are particularly bad in inner-city areas of the United States. Since this book came out, these issues have for the most part not been addressed by those who could do something about them. On the contrary, they have been compounded by:

  • general lowering of standards
  • the practice of social promotion
  • increasing concerns about safety
  • teachers leaving the profession

Few teachers stay in the profession for more than 5 years. Those who do are known by some as "career teachers", that is they consider teaching a vocation rather than a temporary job they accepted because there was a need for teachers or because they simply needed employment. However, some suggest that a proportion leave due to lack of support, low status, etc, as outlined above.

This is a very useful book for educating beginning teachers; it does show the problems, but the tone of the book is not hopeless. Other books are a little darker such as the Blackboard Jungle, even though, true to a 1950s novel, things end up rather well, thus reinforcing "the teacher as hero" mythology.

Social Promotion

In recent years many teachers and administrators have come under pressure to "inflate" failing students' grades and pass them along to the next grade. Critics contend that this is done so as not to harm the students' self-esteem, to let children stay with their friends, and to allow teachers to get rid of problem students. Defenders of the practice say that failing to promote a student can lead to that student being permanently tracked as an underachiever, with little opportunity to escape the "slow" track.


An increase in violence among students in many countries has resulted in serious concerns about safety. School massacres have occurred in several developed countries, such as the Columbine High School massacre in the United States and the Dunblane massacre in the United Kingdom. Teachers are understandably upset about these incidents, and though there is much dispute about their causes, there is little dispute about their effects. Even if the violent incidents are on a much smaller scale, constant concerns about safety create a stressful and unstable environment for both students and teachers


Some believe that these problems have contributed to a shortage of teachers. Certain areas of the U.S., particularly in rural and high-poverty urban locations, have experienced teacher shortages. In response, state education departments and local districts have used various strategies to attract teachers. These strategies include financial incentives (such as loan forgiveness and signing-bonuses) and alternative certification routes which expedite the process of getting a teaching license.

At the same time, federal and state lawmakers have recently taken steps to strengthen teacher standards. The federal No Child Left Behind act requires all teachers to be "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year. Meeting this standard includes having at least a bachelor's degree, full state certification, and demonstrating competency in the subject matter being taught. The latter provision can be demonstrated through passing a standard subject matter test. An increasing number of states are requiring new teachers to pass such tests in their academic field before entering the classroom.

Possible Solutions

Some programs have been started to remedy teacher shortages, such as Teach for America. This program sends recent college graduates to areas most in need of teachers, having gone through a short but intensive training program. The teachers then stay for two years, and may continue if they want. There are similar programs that allow ex-members of the military to become teachers. However, these programs have also been criticized as a "band-aid" cure that will not produce committed teachers.

Some thinkers believe that only a radical restructuring of education will resolve the above problems. A.S. Neill, for one, founded his Summerhill School in England with the belief that the school should conform to the students, not the other way around. This avoids much conflict inherent in teachers and administrators holding power over students. Neil Postman, as well, argued for the Inquiry Method of teaching that more or less accommodates students rather than coerces them. Eric Hoffer was of a mind with Neill, that students could learn in only a few years what teachers try to spoon-feed them over many, if they could only get the urge to play out of their systems.

It is not at all clear, however, that the experiment conducted at Summerhill and similar schools (to date apparently successful) can be applied on a broad scale. Moreover, teachers' generally low pay and social standing would not be remedied by this method.


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