By Jillian Berman
In early 2020, John Larson, the president of Oregon Education Association, the state’s teacher’s union, was preparing to head to Minneapolis for a national conference on what he and fellow teacher advocates were worried was becoming, as Larson put it, a “crisis:” Too few teachers to meet the needs of the nation’s schools.
“We were going to meet and start talking about strategies for encouraging people to go into the teaching profession,” Larson said. Those tactics include fostering interest in teaching as a second career or creating an affordable path to a teaching license for professionals with an aptitude for teaching. “We have a lot of really talented instructional assistants in this state and oftentimes the only reason they’re not certified teachers is because they didn’t have the time or money to go to college,” he said.
But the conference, which had been scheduled for March, never happened. “The pandemic hit and we cancelled that meeting,” Larson said.
Now the crisis he had hoped to discuss at the conference has grown even more acute. Larson said he’s worried that the challenges involved in operating school systems during the pandemic will only make it more difficult to find enough teachers to fill classrooms going forward. Some of his members have taken long-term leave during the pandemic. Others have used the opportunity to retire early because they’re in a high-risk category.
Right now, Oregon schools are largely online, but safely returning to in-person instruction will likely require more teachers to cut down on class sizes, he said. “This pandemic has really amplified some of the problems that were already existing in our school system,” Larson said.
Fears of a looming teacher shortage were growing even before the pandemic. Over the past decade the number of students studying to be educators has plummeted and the pandemic may only exacerbate some districts’ challenges in finding teachers. Nearly 27% of educators said they were considering leaving the profession or taking a leave of absence because of COVID-19, according to a November survey published by Horace Mann Educators Corporation, which offers insurance and other financial products to educators .
Union officials like Larson said they’ve seen these trends firsthand. At the same time, some experts worry state budgets squeezed by the pandemic will usher in widespread teacher layoffs. Still, some teachers in training say they’re more motivated to get into the profession than ever.
Before the pandemic, school officials in Michigan , North Carolina , Illinois and elsewhere were raising alarm about a shortage of teachers in their states. Because the labor market for teachers varies by locality and subject, it’s hard to say what trends in those and other states mean for the supply of teachers nationwide.
What is clear is the number of students studying to become teachers is down. More than one-third fewer students enrolled in teacher preparation programs in 2018 than in 2010, according to an analysis published in 2019 by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. In some states, enrollment in these programs dropped more than 50%, the analysis found.
Lisette Partelow, senior director of K-12 strategic initiatives at CAP and the author of the analysis, said there are a variety of reasons why enrollment in teacher preparation programs may have declined. One factor: widely reported teacher layoffs in the wake of the Great Recession may have discouraged aspiring teachers from entering the field, Partelow said.
In addition, the narrative surrounding the teaching profession has changed over the past several years. In a 2018 survey conducted by PDK International, an educator professional organization, 54% of parents said they didn’t want their children to become teachers — the first time since the group started conducting the survey in 1969 that a majority of parents frowned upon their kids entering the field.
“We don’t do a good enough job of reframing what it means to be an educator, not only financially, but for your life,” said Josh Starr, the chief executive officer of PDK International. While many assume a career in education means working as a classroom teacher your whole life, Starr noted educators have a variety of options, including climbing up a school system’s career ladder, working in education-related policy, technology or other fields.
The narrow framing of what it means to be an educator combined with relatively low pay — the median pay for a high school teacher was $61,660 in 2019 — and decades of political battles over curriculum , the role of standardized testing and other issues have combined to create an environment where, “teachers at the national level don’t get the respect that they should,” Starr said.
While these trends are concerning, it’s hard to say whether they portend a nationwide teacher shortage — and one that could be exacerbated by the pandemic — Partelow said.
There’s detailed data on the drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, but “we don’t have the other side of the equation, which is the demand side,” Partelow said. In other words, it’s hard to say whether the drop in supply in teachers “is something to be really worried about or whether this is something that we can work with,” she said.
In Manatee County, Fla., Pat Barber, the president of the local teacher’s union, said she’s worried the pandemic will only exacerbate a squeeze on the supply of teachers. Pre-COVID, the county’s school system was reporting challenges filling vacancies. Over the course of the pandemic, some teachers have retired , resigned or taken leaves of absence because of the challenges surrounding teaching during this period.
“The students’ perception of what’s going on now, how that will drive them and help them decide that they want to help students — that’s yet to be seen,” Barber said. “It could make them think that this could be something that I could do better or I have this role-model teacher who has overcome all of these obstacles that were put in front of him or her.”
Uncertainty about the future of University of South Florida’s College of Education, which has been a source of new teachers in Manatee and the surrounding districts, is exacerbating concerns about the availability of new teachers in the region, Barber said. USF students intern in the county and are frequently hired to teach after their internships.
Officials announced in October that the school would undergo a “strategic reimagining and reconfiguring” that would ultimately phase out its undergraduate programs.
Officials clarified in November, saying that “no final decisions have been made,” regarding the school and that they’ve been meeting with school district superintendents, students and others as they think through the college’s future. The university has committed to offering “carefully selected undergraduate degrees in education,” though likely fewer than what’s currently available.
The announcements came amid a 63% drop in enrollment over the past decade and a “period of significant budget challenges for the university.” The pandemic has squeezed already stretched university business models.
Conner Diefendorf said he chose USF after working at a middle school for two years and seeing that many of the teachers and administrators he worked with had attended the school. In the wake of the school’s first announcement, he started an online petition calling attention to the role the school plays in supplying teachers to the region.
Diefendorf wasn’t originally planning to attend college, but a history teacher pushed him towards it. The example of that teacher and Diefendorf’s mom, who is also an educator, inspired him to enter the field. During the pandemic, he’s watched his role models struggle to adjust to online learning and a changed in-person environment.
“I feel like a lot more people are appreciating the profession of teaching,” he said of the pandemic period. “But at the same time I still feel like there’s nothing being done about it.” Despite witnessing these experiences, his interest in the profession hasn’t wavered, Diefendorf said.
For Jose Carrillo, part of what drew him to a career in teaching is the chance to be the role model to his students, something that he rarely experienced himself when he was growing up. Carrillo, a freshman at Texas State University studying education, said throughout his time at Title I public schools — those where low-income students make up at least 40% of the population — in Dallas, “I noticed that there weren’t that many teachers of color.”
“That’s a big motivating force for me,” said Carrillo, who is Hispanic. “I want to be that type of role model that students of color need. I just feel like I can connect.”
About three years ago, Carrillo joined Educators Rising, a division of PDK, that aims to help communities recruit and retain teachers and diversify the profession by fostering high school and college students’ interest in teaching. The organization does this through school-based chapters and state and national competitions focused on teaching-related skills like creative lecturing and children’s literature.
Parker Evatt joined the organization in ninth grade. Evatt first started to think about a career in teaching when in fourth grade he had his first-ever male teacher. That teacher inspired Evatt, now a junior at the University of Arkansas, to work to become a role model for students, like his fourth grade teacher was for him.
It’s been hard to watch teachers with long, successful careers be forced to adjust to new technology and modes of teaching during the pandemic, Evatt said. But the experience hasn’t turned him away from the profession. In fact, for both Evatt and Carrillo, watching students and teachers struggle with remote and modified in-person instruction has had the opposite effect.
“It makes me want to get into the classroom right away — as quickly as possible,” Evatt said.
While some superintendents and labor leaders are concerned that the pandemic will make teachers difficult to find, Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that ranks teacher preparation programs and maintains a database of teacher contracts, said she worries the COVID-era may leave more teachers looking for work.
With state and local budgets squeezed by the pandemic and economic downturn — limiting the funding they can provide to schools — Walsh said it’s likely schools will be laying off teachers in the coming months. Indeed, employment in local education, which includes teachers and others who work for schools, like custodians and cafeteria workers, has already dropped .
“You’re going to see a real squeeze on the profession,” Walsh said, of the impact of pandemic-related cuts to school budgets.
Aspiring teachers like Madelyn Fox have already gotten a taste of the challenges educators are facing during this time. Fox, who is studying elementary education at the University of Michigan, has done all of her student-teaching remotely over the past several months.
“When half your class doesn’t have their camera on — I was teaching 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds — you don’t know if something is happening at home, we don’t know if they’re understanding because you can’t really see them,” Fox said.
In addition, she didn’t get as much of a chance as she would have liked to in-person practice classroom management because in a pandemic environment, “all you have to do is mute them,” Fox said. Still, Fox said she’s learning new ways of managing a classroom through technology, like the aforementioned use of the mute button and monitoring chat features.
Despite these obstacles, Fox said she’s still motivated to become a teacher so that she can provide students with opportunities to engage with material in ways they haven’t before. As a young student herself, Fox said she didn’t learn to love reading and literature until she got to engage with plays. Now Fox is a creative writing minor. She said she wants to provide similar “aha” moments for her students.
“I want to see kids become themselves and learn that there are things beyond a grade that matter and that finding something you love to do within a classroom can help you in the future,” she said.
And learning to teach during the pandemic has left Fox well-prepared for a career in the profession, she said.
“None of the current teachers have ever had this type of opportunity where they learn how to do it all online,” she said, “that makes my generation of future teachers quite impressive because it means that we have this learned knowledge that other teachers don’t have.”