Half of teachers are considering quitting. And yes, we all consider leaving our own jobs at least once a week. But many school districts believe these teachers are not daydreaming and are wary that the new teacher pipeline is empty. Houston had 700 job vacancies over the summer, prompting the Texas governor to create a task force on teacher shortages. Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 5.4% of educational services jobs were open in December 2021—more than double the rate from a year prior. 

Now, I’m no fan of the teacher pool status quo. The Chicago teachers union (as one example among many) has stolen the futures of low-income children in particular by forcing them out of classrooms for 17 months, an unforgivable sin. Almost daily, the Twitter account Libs of Tik Tok highlights preschool teachers pushing “queer education” or English teachers slamming positive scholastic behavior as white supremacy. With this cabal, a shortage might sound comforting. 

But that’s the wrong mindset. The teachers who are going to quit aren’t these teachers. Where else, after all, will they find such a powerful union? Where else will they reach the same audience with their activism? No, the teachers who are leaving have options. 

Losing good teachers is a real crisis. As with all economic predictions, we can certainly hope that mass turnover never materializes, but the consequences would be so devastating we must simultaneously work to prevent it. Turnover undermines student achievement, increases costs on school districts, and reduces quality (assuming an insufficient supply of qualified replacements). 

But watch, when our cities start discussing retention and recruitment, they will universally propose one solution—raising teacher pay. Spoiler alert, it won’t work.

Teachers aren’t investment bankers. Teachers want to live comfortably, of course, and I’m sure they’d love a raise. But high school teachers made an average of $67,340 in 2020, which ranks among the highest teacher salaries in the world. Raising that by a few thousand a year is not going to change a person’s mind already set on leaving, or steer an undergrad out of her pre-med major. Raising it by $100,000 a year perhaps would, but no city could pay that debt without raising property taxes to an unsustainable level. 

Dedicated teachers are ultimately in it for the experience: improving kids’ lives. I personally joined Teach for America in pursuit of this goal. But fewer and fewer teachers get to feel this joy. When we understand why, we can address the barriers to attracting more and better teachers. Two problems stand out.

First, schools have handcuffed teachers from actually helping the kids they can. For example, teachers are increasingly forced to permit bad habits in the name of equity. But good teachers know that if they bless skipping class, late work, or rowdy behavior today, they only set their students up for eventual failure. And, good teachers know if they don’t reward students for exhibiting self-control, even behaved students start to slide. This means an unruly classroom where no learning takes place.

Similarly, some schools are working to equalize student outcomes by canceling advanced math classes or ending honor rolls. This twisted desire to cap students’ potential steals joy from students and teachers alike. Good teachers don’t want to participate in the diminution of their students’ futures. They’d rather quit, and who can blame them.

Second, we’ve forgotten as a society what it takes to raise a successful child. You want three ingredients: robust parental support, children who work hard, and teachers who teach rich academic content (not personal ideology). But we’ve decided to focus almost exclusively on one piece of that puzzle: schools and teachers. When a school has low test scores, we assume the teachers must be bad. When a kid is falling behind, we assume it’s up to the school to find extra help, indeed our federal government pays for it. We’ve slowly stopped expecting that children do much when they get home, which aggressively minimizes both the kid’s and parent’s responsibilities. Somewhat surprisingly, schools themselves are reinforcing the one-ingredient success model. The school district I live in prohibits due dates for assignments, rendering homework dead. A teacher cannot create success on her own, and good teachers know this. 

A teacher shortage would crush schools and parents from coast to coast, increasing class sizes and decreasing productivity in school. The consequences will fall hardest on our poorest school districts, increasing the drop-out rate, which brings with it limitless community and national harm. If we want to do something about it, let’s do more than toss dollars at the problem. Let’s give teachers purpose and joy again. That means empowering teachers to teach—not requiring them to level down. That means raising expectations on parents and children—when a school earns low test scores, we should expect help from parents to swap out video games for books at home. In unleashing the potential of our best teachers, we will witness the limitless potential of American children who each deserve to chase their dreams.