By KELLY PEARCE
Teach Plus New Mexico
My journey to teaching was circuitous. Fifteen years ago, I entered the profession via journalism and then the United States Peace Corps.
Already packing a bachelor’s degree, I added a master’s in education as I settled into a second-grade public school classroom in New Mexico.
My path did not include a traditional teacher preparation program, but my alternative licensure trail was studded with college courses and intensive training about what to teach and how to teach it.
Back then, entering teaching from another career was more unique than it is now. Back then, there wasn’t a dearth of educators. As state education departments across the country grapple with teacher shortages this summer, they have dipped into the creative well, sometimes curving too far away from usual routes.
In Arizona, people only need to be enrolled in college to begin teaching. Head east to Florida, where active and retired military and their spouses who have not yet secured their bachelor’s degree can be issued a five-year temporary certificate to teach. So continues the deprofessionalizing of the career I adore. So continues the devaluing of the education students deserve.
Yes, we are thigh-high in educator vacancies aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a flurry of earlier-than-expected retirements. By 2024, there could be a demand for 300,000 new teachers across the nation with a supply of only 100,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But stretching the applicant pool in the way these two states have chosen is laughable.
Just look at social media. “Thank you for calling Florida’s Department of Education. How can I assist you?” So starts the TikTok video. You played school with your stuffed animals as a child? You were a fan of the television show Saved by the Bell? You can be a teacher in Florida!
Year after year, studies show that the most important factor of a child’s academic achievement is the teacher. Don’t we want the next generation of educators to be well versed in evidence-based classroom strategies and to learn these in credible entry programs focused on teaching and learning?
Instead of taking the avenues that Arizona and Florida have, there are other innovative and laudable ways to draw in capable teachers ready to enter classrooms from coast to coast. Let’s pump up the profession in more ways like these.
Why not start with aspiring teachers still in high school? In The Phoenix Project, published in spring 2021 by the national education non-profit Teach Plus, the authors suggest providing teenagers experiences in the realities of being an educator in today’s world, including internships. There are other positive approaches that are beckoning future educators, including myriad alternative licensure programs. In my state of New Mexico, Leading Educators through Alternative Pathways (LEAP), includes year-long collaboration and professional learning to train teachers for the state’s diverse classrooms. It is in its sixth year.
Teacher residency programs, in which trainees engage in apprenticeships alongside mentor teachers, are more common than ever. According to the National Education Association, there were about 50 residency programs nationwide in 2016, and estimates suggest that the number has risen by 75 percent since then. My school district is debuting one this school year. The stipends and tuition support teacher residency programs often provide can be motivating, as well as the targeted training that accompanies the day-to-day knowledge new teachers acquire by being in classrooms.
The need for teachers may be more immediate than these approaches can accommodate. So, kudos to school districts advertising on billboards, holding frequent job fairs, and using the voices of current teachers to entice new ones to join them on their campuses. In addition to creating more pathways into the education career, there are constructive avenues to keep veteran teachers. Sizable pay hikes for teachers and more robust multi-year mentorship programs are starting to help in some places, as well as initiatives that allow retired teachers to return to the classroom in as little as three months without losing their retirement benefits.
As the new school year dawns, we should get creative to ensure students have quality teachers in their lives because our youth are worthy of top-notch educators who inspire them to walk bravely and well-equipped into bright futures. But when the bell rings, the teaching profession will not be saved by ideas that make for funny videos on TikTok.
Our children embarking on their promising education journey should not be the punchline – ever.
Kelly Pearce is an instructional coordinator in Rio Rancho Public Schools in New Mexico. She is a Teach Plus senior writing fellow.