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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #1

The Canary in the Classroom

ben dowEd. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors. This is his first post for TEACHER VOICES.  

favicon Six Months. That’s the amount of time our middle school math position has gone unfilled in Port Townsend, Washington.

This year, amid the shift to Common Core and Smarter Balanced Assessments, perhaps the highest stakes year in the history of high-stakes testing, our students in seventh and eighth grade have been in a classroom with a substitute since the first day of school. Sadly, this is a scenario that is beginning to play out with regularity in small rural districts across Washington state.

Now I know, “small rural district” brings to mind pictures of cows and one-store towns that have always had trouble attracting professionals, but that isn’t Port Townsend.

I live in a small, vibrant arts community, with high-quality restaurants, independent movies, and festivals most weekends. Port Townsend sits on a small reach of the Olympic Peninsula surrounded on three sides by beaches with a Victorian-era downtown right on the water. We frequently make those travel magazine “Top Ten Small Towns in America” lists. It’s the kind of place where teachers talk about the “golden handcuffs” of living in an idyllic town that most folks just get to visit on vacation.

Historically, Port Townsend never struggled to attract teachers either. There were years in the 90s when we had more than a hundred applicants for openings in our district.

Those days are long gone. We’ve shifted from hundreds of applicants, to a handful, to literally classrooms still without teachers six weeks into the school year.

Parents are mad, the community’s mad, and for all the sound and fury of the parent meetings at school, there’s little that can be done.  We sit at the perfect confluence of two storms that have been battering small districts like ours.

On the one hand, Washington, like many states, has been ratcheting up credentialing requirements for teachers, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take a math major to realize that if you’re good at math or science, teaching isn’t a good economic opportunity for you. I’ve been teaching in Washington for close to 10 years and have yet to see the salary schedule for teachers go up once, while the job continues to get harder.

Imagine if Google decided to low-ball new engineers, pay them less than all comparable professionals, then simply ratcheted up the standards on the few employees they could attract. Would anybody expect Google to stay competitive? Of course, in the private sector, this kind of solution would be laughable. In education, it’s the norm.

College students are simply no longer interested. According to Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, by the end of 2012, enrollment in teacher education programs in California had dropped by 66 percent from a decade earlier. Similar trends have played out across the country.

Historically, discrimination against women in the workplace paradoxically buffered education from having to confront the problem of missing education majors earlier. As long as women were largely excluded from other forms of professional work, there were always capable, brilliant folks waiting to enter into the teaching profession. Thankfully, but problematically for teaching, this is no longer the case.

Combine nose-diving enrollment in teacher education programs with a wave of Baby Boomers set to retire, and schools like Port Townsend, which used to be able to pick from among a host of qualified candidates, are struggling to simply find teachers who are correctly certified to fill positions. And our students are struggling too. Like the canary in the coal mine that warned of impending doom for the whole mine, schools like Port Townsend have become the canary in the classroom.

None of this bodes well for the students in our small town.  None of this bodes well for the future of our country. The teacher shortages that have started in small rural districts like ours will spread. You simply don’t lose 66 percent of your supply of new teachers in a state like California without a tsunami of unintended consequences for the quality of education provided to students a few years down the road.

But back on the ground, things are both a lot less clear and a lot more concrete. Classes of seventh and eighth graders laying the foundation for their high school math trajectories, who are learning the building blocks of algebra that will support their drives into careers in math and science, are starting their sixth week of school with a substitute.

As a state and as a country, we are failing these students. We have to demand that our legislators make teaching a profession that will attract the best and brightest of the next generation. Legislators have to not just raise standards for teachers, but create the incentives and opportunities that will make people excited about the rewarding challenge that is teaching.

But right now, neither Washington is doing that.  Right now the people of Port Townsend and our children are waiting, without a teacher, for a change. favicon


  1. Maren Johnson (@maren_johnson)

    Hi Ben,
    Great post!
    Rural schools face enormous challenges in filling teaching positions.
    I loved this paragraph, “As a state and as a country, we are failing these students. We have to demand that our legislators make teaching a profession that will attract the best and brightest of the next generation. Legislators have to not just raise standards for teachers, but create the incentives and opportunities that will make people excited about the rewarding challenge that is teaching.”

    • Benjamin Dow

      Thanks, Maren!

      It is definitely collaborative work that has to be done. We need the support of the larger Washington community to move forward.

      The beauty of small schools is you can often move quickly to change and/or fix problems, but only those you have control over. That lack of agency is frustrating.


  2. Julianne Dow

    I feel this issue even more keenly as a parent than I do as a teacher. We have two young children who love math and will soon surpass both their parents in their mathematical abilities. I want the best and the brightest in the fields of math and science to be drawn to this profession, for the sake of my own children and everyone else’s. That will only happen with a real change in how teachers are treated and compensated.

  3. Mark Isero

    Ben, thank you for your thoughtful essay.

    There’s a website called Transparent California, where you can look up how much people make if they work for the state. A couple factoids:

    1. 10,281 of SF’s 28,000 employees in 2012 earned at least $100,000 in total compensation (salary + overtime + benefits).

    2. Of these 10,281 people, just 402 were teachers.

    3. The highest salary you can earn as a teacher in SF is $82,000 — after 28 years of service.

    4. Teacher salaries in SF are relatively high (compared to districts in other states).

    Teachers need to be paid more! The Teacher Salary Project, founded by Ninive Calegari, is working on this important issue.

Please share your brilliant insights!