Labor Voices: State leaders must support young educators for the sake of our kids

A lot has changed with teaching in the three decades since I began as a student teacher in Oak Park Schools — much of it to the detriment of Michigan children, educators and families. If policymakers don’t take immediate action to support aspiring and early career educators, Michigan students will face irreparable harm.

I remember those early days as a student teacher, how enthusiastic I was to wake up each morning and see the kids. Every day, I shuttled between Oak Park’s middle school, high school and one of the elementary schools, excited to learn from each of my mentor teachers.

I felt supported by those mentors, school administrators, families and the community. Politicians weren’t trying to sow discord between educators and parents. We had enough teachers and support staff in our schools to provide the individual attention that students needed and the assistance that student teachers like me needed to learn the craft and refine our classroom management skills.

After finishing my student teaching, I landed a full-time teaching position in Fraser Public Schools. I received a decent wage and benefits, my colleagues had time to help me learn and grow, I wasn’t overburdened with student debt, and I didn’t have to justify my existence based on standardized test scores (at least not until much later in my career).

Our students were the greatest beneficiaries of these good working conditions.

Times have changed, and not for the better. Amid a worsening statewide shortage of educators, today’s new educators are being thrown into the deep end without a life jacket. These dedicated young professionals are underpaid, overburdened with student debt, and under relentless attack by political operatives who are manufacturing so-called “controversies” out of thin air.

It’s little wonder teacher preparation programs are experiencing declining enrollment, and many early career educators are leaving the field after just a few years. According to Launch Michigan, a coalition of education, business and civic leaders, we as a state are losing up to 10,000 educators every year due to retirement and career change, and we’re bringing in only about 5,000 new educators to replace them.

The shortage will keep getting worse — a recent Michigan Education Association poll of about 2,600 educators that showed one in three planned to leave the field in the next few years, either through retirement or a career change.

In short, too many educators are leaving, and too few talented young people are replacing them. The situation is getting worse by the day, and it’s incumbent upon state leaders to take action now. Here’s what lawmakers can do:

  • Take immediate action to address the state’s acute shortage of school employees, by providing incentives to keep good educators in our schools while reducing the overwhelming stress placed on educators. That means improving wages and benefits for new and veteran educators, and treating them as professionals.
  • Support Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed education budget, which includes $600 million for teacher recruitment, including establishing the Michigan Future Educator Fellowship. This program would offer significant financial relief and support to new educators as they complete their preparation programs and student teaching experiences.
  • Stop the partisan political attacks on our public schools, and instead come together — regardless of political party — to enact real solutions to the challenges facing our schools.

Time is running out. The educator exodus and lack of a talent pipeline to replace them is harming our students every day. We need our elected leaders to set aside politics and take action now to support young, veteran and aspiring educators, which in turn will secure a brighter future for our children.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

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