Opinion: Problems with the ‘Teacher Pipeline’ — An Unfit Analogy for Finding (and Fostering) Future Educators
“Teacher Pipeline” is a common term used to encompass issues of teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention. The phrase is not new, popular in seasons of dire teacher shortages —from the 1980s (AACTE, 1988; Ekstrom & Goertz, 1985) to our present age (Choate, Goldhaber, & Theobald, 2020; Goldhaber & Mizrav, 2021; Kyser et al., 2021).
A “Teacher Pipeline” evokes vivid imagery: supply and demand, staff shortages akin to an energy crisis, and an impetus to extract and extrude future educators. To wit, the pipeline analogy lends itself to further symbolism such as “refueling” (Goldhaber et al., 2015/6); “widening” (Gagnon et al., 2019), “excavating” (Goldhaber & Cowan, 2014); and dealing with numerous “breaks,” “holes,” or “leaks” (Barth et al., 2016; Shah et al., 2018; Stohr, Fontana, & Lapp, 2018; TNTP, 2020).
The very notion of a “Teacher Pipeline,” however, is broken. Not only does the illustration dehumanize education professionals; it also misrepresents a multifaceted topic.
One cannot simply “drill” or “frack” to find more teacher reserves. More importantly, pipelines transport nonrenewable commodities. Crude oil and natural gas are finite, consumed faster than they replenish. Rather than digging up and burning through teachers, let’s examine alternative analogies for finding and fostering future educators.
Continuing the energy theme, facilities for renewable sources — “wind farm,” “hydroelectric plant,” “solar panel fields”—are noteworthy for their reappropriation of agricultural terms. Emphasis is on cultivation and care. Teacher development requires similar attention and sustainable actions. We could take inspiration from Froebel’s kindergarten — a “children-garden” full of nurture, growth, and discovery. Wouldn’t the same principles apply to a “Teacher Garden?”
For another historical example in education, consider “Teacher Academy.” Named after the grove where Plato taught his pupils, the term “academy” puts thoughtful discourse and reflection at the forefront. Or why not simply use “Teacher Class” to highlight cohorts of collaborative learners? This also relates to language in the sports world, where “recruiting classes” or the next “draft class” receive relentless scrutiny.
Alas, issues of teacher recruitment and preparation are complex, too robust for a single metaphor or buzzword. But allow me one more suggestion: “Teacher Reforestation.”
The USDA Forest Service explains that reforestation “allows for the accelerated development of forested ecosystems following natural disturbance events” (2022a, p. 1). Schools have experienced numerous disturbances as of late, and—much like a damaged forest—they also require immediate action for recovery. Yet the solution is not so straightforward as refueling a machine. Repairs are necessary, along with regeneration.
Granted, “Teacher Reforestation” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “Teacher Pipeline.” But if anything, “reforestation” more accurately conveys an intricate endeavor involving a variety of relationships. Furthermore, the ecological analogy offers milestones for progress: seed, sapling, maturation, pollination, fruition. These phases emphasize development, dissemination, and diversity. Compare this to eventual pipeline outcomes like distillation, coking, cracking, decolorization, and other oppressive conditions.
According to the National Forest System Reforestation Strategy, “Reforestation is at the core of efforts to ensure healthy and resilient forests” (USDA Forest Service, 2022b, p. 6). Indeed, schools need healthy and resilient teachers, revitalized and ready to withstand future disturbances. Moreover, such teachers can model these values and skills in their classrooms.
No tree lasts forever. But treated well, they can thrive and flourish over multiple generations, planting seeds for the future. The same is true for our teachers.
Daniel Bergman, Ph.D., is professor and program chair, science education at Wichita State University School of Education.Page Break
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