Some states are using the shortage as an opportunity to lower the bar for educators. But there are more sustainable, community-minded ways of addressing the problem.
For Cheryl Pelt, a public school teacher in Richmond, Virginia, she finds it very disturbing to work in an environment where the classroom has become unbearable. “Many teachers have been bitten, kicked, and had chairs thrown at them,” Pelt tells The Progressive.
She has taught K through 5th grade for a decade but doesn’t always feel valued or supported by the administration. “If you have a dangerous or real behavioral problem in the classroom,” Pelt says, “the principal insists the teacher takes care of the problem [without support from behavior specialists].”
The stressful working conditions that teachers face is not unique to large urban districts like Richmond Public Schools, which serves nearly 25,000 students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Just south of Richmond, in the smaller, suburban Chesterfield County public school district, the same issues are present. According to Mary Ann Quigley, a former high school educator in Midlothian, teachers are regularly asked to do extra work, including “covering for sick colleagues or writing curriculum because the school cannot find anyone to write it.”
Quigley adds that losing so many teachers has caused an undue amount of stress: “This is detrimental to young and inexperienced teachers which causes burnout and job dissatisfaction.”
School systems across the country are feeling the effects of teachers quitting due to low morale and high stress conditions. While the extent of the teacher shortage is uncertain, and its causes are complex, at least one study points to teachers’ growing dissatisfaction with the declining public support for their profession as a significant reason. The study, published by researchers at Brown University and the University at Albany, concluded that the status of the teaching profession is at its lowest in five decades. It also found that only 42 percent of educators said the stress of their job is worth it, down markedly from 81 percent in the 1970s.
“The drops in satisfaction probably aren’t attributable to one factor,” according to a write-up on the study in Education Week. “Rather, it’s likely a combination of several things, including declining wages, a competitive outside labor market, the decreasing influence of teachers’ unions, a rise in school shootings, strenuous reform efforts, and low education funding levels.”
Regardless, the rapidly changing educational landscape has sent policy makers scrambling for solutions—and many are using the shortages as an opportunity to lower the bar for teacher certification.
In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin recently launched a social media and advertising campaign called “Become a teacher.” Its intent is to bring educators on board “without necessarily going through the traditional degree and licensure process,” a local news station reported.
And Virginia isn’t the only state that, desperate to fill teaching jobs, has decided to relax the requirements needed to teach. Some states, including Arizona and Florida, “have gone one step further by lifting the requirement that teachers hold bachelor’s degrees in certain instances,” Education Week reports.
In Arizona, new teacher hires can enter training programs without a bachelor’s degree if they are enrolled in college and are supervised by a licensed teacher; Florida is offering military veterans a five-year teaching certificate, if they have “at least sixty college credits with a 2.5 grade point average and can pass a state exam to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter.”
The policy of lowering teacher qualifications is especially pervasive in Southern states. An article in the Dallas Morning News, for example, highlighted a study by the Southern Regional Education Board that found that, during the 2019 to 2020 school year, 4 percent of teachers in eleven Southern states “were uncertified or teaching with an emergency certification. In addition, 10 percent were teaching out of field.”
Most “grow your own” programs are geared toward introducing high school students to the field in an effort to reflect the communities they serve.
Teachers and policy experts question the wisdom of putting untrained individuals at the head of classrooms filled with school children. As Quigley notes, “putting inexperienced teachers in the classroom will only exacerbate the problem.” Similarly, research from the Learning Policy Institute underscored how “teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains” and that “gains in teacher effectiveness associated with experience are most steep in teachers’ initial years, but continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.”
The practice of hiring inexperienced teachers is even more prevalent in high poverty school districts with majority Black or Latinx students. “The more impoverished and racially isolated the school,” an article published by the American Federation of Teachers noted, “the greater the likelihood that students in the school will be taught by inexperienced teachers, uncertified teachers, and out-of-field teachers.”
There are long-term alternatives to addressing the teacher shortage that don’t rely on lowering qualifications. One solution that many states and districts have turned to is to start a “grow your own,” or GYO, program.
These initiatives—made up of partnerships between school districts, community-based organizations, and colleges—are designed to recruit community members to teach in local pre-K-12 schools, and most of these programs are geared toward introducing high school students to the field in an effort to reflect the communities they serve.
According to James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, an effective GYO program can, over time, lessen the teacher shortage and diversify the profession. “They’re good strategies for giving us much-needed increased diversity in our teaching force,” Fedderman says, “because if you’re encouraging your own students to look into teaching careers, you’ll probably increase the likelihood that your young teachers will look like your area’s students.”
Fedderman tempers his enthusiasm for GYO programs by adding that they likely will not be a replacement for the traditional new teacher supply line. Also, this is not to say GYO programs don’t come with potential pitfalls.
One “cautionary note” comes from Conra Gist, an associate professor of teaching and teacher education in the College of Education at the University of Houston. Gist’s research for the National Education Policy Center in Colorado has found that GYO programs can focus on the recruitment of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) without enough emphasis on retaining those teachers.
“Programs that fail to consider how the teaching and learning needs of BIPOC teachers evolve as they progress along the teacher development continuum likely will not improve retention of new teachers,” she writes. “A shortsighted approach to teacher development may leave these teachers without the guidance and resources needed to enhance their students’ learning.”