Amid our life-and-death fight against COVID-19, we must prepare to wage another high-stakes battle against a dire crisis that is worsening in its wake: the educator shortage.
Ask school administrators and they’ll share their struggles to find enough teachers for every classroom. Similarly, there are fewer applicants for counselors, bus drivers, paraprofessionals and other education staff. A complete return to in-person learning — something we all desperately want and need — will lay bare the true depths of this critical shortage.
Pre-pandemic, new teachers were already leaving the profession within the first five years in historically high numbers, while colleges of education were reporting enrollment declines of 45%. Adding to that, the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System reports that mid-year retirements have increased 40% compared to averages from past school years.
The continual shift between virtual and in-person learning has been very difficult for students, but also for educators. Many across the state are teaching both ways, leading to frustration, exhaustion and early exits from a career they once loved.
The pandemic has taken its toll on Michigan’s teachers — and that toll will be felt most acutely by Michigan’s students.
Qualified professional educators are the single most important factor in a student’s academic success. Attacks on the profession, stagnant wages, reductions in pensions and higher out-of-pocket costs for health benefits are among reasons driving educators from the profession, while deterring many of the best and brightest from even considering the career.
The Michigan Education Association has launched a new website, www.michiganeducatorproject.org, so the public can hear directly from educators about what’s driving the educator shortage. “Recruit. Respect. Retain.” That’s the mantra from those experiencing it firsthand.
We must work together to solve this issue for our students. One example is a new partnership between the Michigan Department of Education and MEA on the “Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educators” campaign. Together, we are encouraging formerly certified educators to return to the classroom to reverse the trend.
A major obstacle to renewing teaching certificates is the required 150 hours of additional professional learning. Under this new program, local districts can obtain waivers from MDE to hire previously certified educators and reduce or eliminate those hours. Alternately, MEA will offer “re-entry” memberships to give individuals access to quality professional development to accumulate those hours.
While this is a good start, we must do more to ensure an adequate supply of professional educators.
To reverse the severe decline in college students choosing a career in education, we need to reduce barriers in our teacher preparation programs. The fifth-year, unpaid student teaching internship creates a financial hardship, especially for lower-income students of color we desperately need to diversify our teaching ranks. We should pay stipends to student teachers so they can realize their dream of becoming professional educators.
The cost to complete teacher preparation programs exceeds the annual salary of many first-year teachers — where Michigan ranks 41st nationally, according to new National Education Association research.
We must commit to improve starting salaries for new teachers, along with all school employees. Salary levels that do not support basic necessities — including payments on ever-greater student loans — are driving early departures from the profession.
In a survey by the RAND Corp., one fourth of all teachers in the U.S. said they were likely to leave the profession before the end of the year. As a result, every state will be competing for trained educators. Reducing barriers to entering, or re-entering, the education profession is a good starting point to position Michigan in that competition.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.