Secondary Language Learning

What Will You Say?

Kerry Parker, OFA Secondary Language Learning Chair
French Teacher, Edison High School

It is a topic that is once again coming back to the attention of educators, policymakers and journalists alike – we have a national shortage of teachers. And not just a national shortage, but it is hitting us harder and harder here in Ohio. Several articles have been published in the last few years to draw attention to the growing shortage. But this topic has come at me from multiple sides in the last few months and got me really thinking about the depth of the issue and my role as an educator in finding a solution.

For those that have not read the article from the Washington Post last fall, or the article in this spring issue of the Foreign Language Annals or those from various other sources, world language education is no longer alone in the struggle to find teachers to fill its ranks. Recruiting teacher candidates is becoming more and more difficult. Between 2009 and 2014, teacher education enrollment nationwide dropped by 35 percent, from 691,000 to 451,000, according to A Coming Crisis in Teaching; Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S. (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). On the other side of the shortage is the “leaky bucket”. The largest share of annual demand comes from a nearly 8% attrition rate, teachers leaving the profession, the majority of them before retirement age (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). In 2015, our Ohio universities prepared just nearly 400 foreign language education candidates, but we know that those future educators are not limited to Ohio’s teaching positions. Take that in that same year, Ohio lost hundreds of language teachers to retirement, to career changes into administrative positions, to profession changes and to life changes. And, according to various local newspapers, several school districts around the state were looking to add new foreign language programs and others were trying to bring back positions that had been “on hold” since the Great Recession. Statistically, we have a problem.

But the problem is more than a series of statistics. It is a perception problem and our projection of that perception. This may not be true for you, personally. And four months ago, I would have told you that it was not true for me. Until my niece, a twenty-year-old biology major at Ohio State came to tell me that she thinks she might want to be a teacher. And my first thought? “Oh no, I don’t think you want that!” Thankfully I didn’t say it, and I desperately hope it didn’t show on my face, because I love my job and I want her to have a career that she will love. But, honestly, I thought of the high-stakes testing and accountability, the increasing lack of job security, the salary potential and the everyday high stress and constant need for patience… I just didn’t want that for my niece unless she really wanted it for herself.

Before I get to the end of my niece’s tale, it is important to note that variations of this conversation and subsequent reaction are playing out all over the country. Sometimes the dialogue is picked up by a family member, sometimes a student, sometimes with someone that we mentor. Within two weeks of this conversation with my niece, a coworker was complaining of a nearly identical conversation with her son. Other colleagues from the Dayton area and Lorain County were telling similar tales in the weeks that followed. And when someone asks you, what will you say?

As educators, we are in the unique position to find and encourage this next generation of teachers. It will mean looking less at the worries that come to mind and remember that all professions come with downsides. In their article in the Foreign Language Annals (What is the title of the article? It should be added here although it is mentioned below), Swanson and Mason list perceptions of the profession as one of the five key reasons for teacher shortages in foreign language education (Swanson and Mason, 2018). Some of those perceptions must be changed through the community, but many of them come from us as educators and how we speak of our own profession – what we choose to highlight. Do your students see what you do every day in your classroom and aspire to do the same? When challenges mount and the retirement age shifts further and further away, it can be hard to keep our complaints down. But, as important as these issues can be to us, they are not what define us as educators. Do our students know that? What do they see and hear every day in our classrooms that tells them who we are as a foreign language educators? We have to be mentors.

Encouraging a new generation of teachers will also mean mentally identifying those students that have a spark for working with others and a passion for world languages. These students already have a way of becoming our favorites as we share the language with them. Can we find ways to give them some teaching moments and boost their interest in the field? Just as sharing our passion for our subject is key, part of being a mentor is expressing why we feel what we do is important. This is not a profession for the money; but it can be a very fulfilling career. And world languages are the best of all, aren’t they? Ours are subjects that are hands-on, person-to-person communication that takes kids (students) from travel basics to being able to discuss global topics from society to science.

Dear Kate, why do you want to teach? I want to teach because I know that I make a difference each day I enter the classroom. I am passionate about what I teach; people need to be able to communicate across cultures and to be able to see the world through the eyes of another. I love speaking a second language and how I can use that to meet others, work collectively, learn and enjoy life and travel more; I want to share that skill with others. I don’t mind the time it takes to plan lessons because I enjoy lessons that are new, hands-on and off-beat. I don’t mind the time it takes to listen or the effort it sometimes takes to be patient because it makes someone’s day better. Dear Kate, what is your passion? We need good teachers and I think you could be one.

Best Foreign Language Education Colleges in Ohio. 1996-2018, https://www.universities.com/find/ohio/best/education-and-liberal-arts/foreign-language-education. Accessed May 2018.

Cross, Freddie. Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing 1990–1991 through 2016–2017, U.S. Department of Education Office of Post-Secondary Education, August 2016.

Strauss, Valerie. “Teacher shortages affecting every state as 2017-18 school year begins.” Washington Post, 28 August 2017.

Sutcher, Leib, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Desiree Carver-Thomas. “A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.” Learningpolicyinstitute.org, 25 September 2016.

Swanson, Pete and Shannon Mason. “The world language teacher shortage: Taking a new direction”. Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 51, Iss. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 251-262.