Blog Post by PTAC Board Member Jake Miller
Last month the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) held a series of regional stakeholder convenings for educational partners in preliminary discussions about Chapter 49 in Title 22 of the Pennsylvania Code, the state regulations pertaining to educator preparation and certification in Pennsylvania.
Several members of the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee (PTAC) attended these meetings in order to learn from other education stakeholders in the Commonwealth and to provide the vital perspective of classroom teachers in these discussions.
The PTAC members in attendance used their expertise in the field to zero in on and provide narrative to three core issues: addressing the current teacher shortage in Pennsylvania, improving diversity in our teaching force, and ensuring that our new teachers enter the profession well-prepared to help our students succeed.
ADDRESSING THE TEACHING SHORTAGE
Kelly Dougherty, an elementary teacher in Southern Lehigh and PTAC member, reports the Chapter 49 conference revealed a quiet crisis creeping across Pennsylvania school districts. Pre-retirement teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers, and their empty classrooms are being filled with less-qualified educators. The pre-retirement attrition rate has increased drastically; 66% of teacher attrition is pre-retirement loss, which is startling. But the attrition rate is just part of the complex and multi-faceted issue of teacher shortages. Ryan Saunders, a Policy Advisor of the Learning Policy Institute, shared some statistics during the Chapter 49 conference which crystalised the dire situation of the teacher shortage. According to Saunders’ statistics, teacher preparation enrollment has dropped 35% from 2009 to 2014. This drop in enrollment means there are too few teachers to fill these abandoned positions. To fill these positions, the state grants emergency certification to candidates who have not completed a teacher preparation program, which means less-qualified individuals are replacing highly-qualified educators. “Unfortunately,” says Dougherty, “the highest concentration of pre-attrition loss and emergency certification occur in urban districts, a situation which increases the inequity gap among Pennsylvania schools. Districts with the greatest need for highly-qualified teachers are settling for less-qualified instructors and larger class sizes.”
IMPROVING DIVERSITY IN THE PROFESSION
There’s a desperate lack of diversity in our classrooms, and the Chapter 49 meeting highlighted such, says Jake Miller, Cumberland Valley history teacher and PTAC board member. Though nearly 20% of the Commonwealth is minority, only 6% of its teachers match that description, which is in stark contrast to neighboring New York and Maryland, both of whom are diverse and have diverse teaching populations. “Focusing on such an effort to recruit a diverse range of teachers has a three-fold effect,” says Miller. “First, many teachers of color are drawn to districts of color, and that’s where the highest need for the vacancy vacuum is greatest; second, teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color; third, teachers of color can help break the barrier in diversity in mostly white districts (which are taught by mostly white students).”
Karey Killian, an elementary librarian in Milton and PTAC member, noted that teams of diverse stakeholders at the meeting quickly identified common themes in their discussions. “These themes included a need for increased focus on mental health of both students and adults in our schools, discussions of alternative pathways to teacher certification, and the potential impact of teacher apprenticeship programs,” she says.
ENSURING NEW TEACHERS ARE WELL PREPARED
According to Sara Jones, a Titusville social studies teacher and PTAC member, “when I entered the teaching profession 20+ years ago, educators were expected to create lesson plans, plan and deliver instruction, assess student learning, and manage student discipline. This seemed like a full plate and I honestly did not feel that my teacher candidate training program did a great job in preparing me for the realities of being a teacher. At that time, secondary teacher training programs focused primarily on content courses and until student teaching semester, there was very little interaction with students or in schools.”
“Over the next 23 years, the workload changed dramatically. However, being in the classroom meant that it kind of crept up on me,” said Jones. “Each year new responsibilities have been added yet nothing has been taken away and no more time has been added. Not only are educators tasked with helping students navigate the changes the 21st century has brought, with a focus on higher order skills, lifelong learning habits, and incorporating technology, we are also expected to complete additional administrative tasks, deal with more and more students who have experienced trauma, and provide more customized learning and problem based experiences. All while worrying about how we and our schools will be “scored” on these elements, plus things we cannot control.”
“While teacher candidates are much better prepared by the time they reach their student teaching experience today , they are also inundated with stories in the media about teachers walking out of the classroom to rally for a living wage, teachers that have to work multiple jobs to provide for their families, and teachers being expected to do more and more with less and less. How can we expect young people choosing career paths as college students to choose education when teachers more often than not are not seen as the professionals they are,” said Jones.
“Teaching in a small rural school district in NWPA, student teachers have never been in abundance. However we have always had one or two in most buildings each semester. This number has decreased dramatically in the last few years. We are now lucky to see one per building, per year. And the last two student teachers that have been in my classroom were totally shocked that they would have to do so much work outside the school day and that other aspects of their lives would be impacted by this expectation,” according to Jones. “At the Chapter 49 Stakeholders’ Meeting, the discussion surrounding increasing student teaching to up to a year was lively. While having more time to learn classroom management and content expertise is certainly valuable, does it outweigh the cost of additional time spent in college or seasoned educators losing an entire year with their students as the assist a student teacher.”
The Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee is committed to creating a direct pipeline between teachers and education decision makers in Pennsylvania. The narratives that Kelly, Karey, Jake, Sara, and the other PTAC members involved in this arena were able to provide undoubtedly helped other stakeholders understand the practical implication of the policies they were considering.
The issues we are facing in our commonwealth are complex and will require nuanced solutions. We are excited that PTAC teachers were able to take the first steps at these meetings in helping shape those solutions.
Blog Post by Jolene Barron, PTAC Member
As summer winds down, and a new school year peeks around the corner, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of excitement, and even a bit of trepidation, about what this new school year will hold.
Even though I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, I always get a bit nervous at the beginning of a new school year. It’s not about the content, or my colleagues, or even my district...for me, it’s always about the students and what kind of relationships we will share.
A few short months ago, I said goodbye to a group of children with whom I had bonded deeply. We learned together, we laughed and we cried together, but more than anything, I developed a unique relationship with each and every student in my class. Some of the relationships came naturally, but for quite a few, we had to work hard for many months to grow something meaningful.
No matter how difficult it may seem at times, the most important goal I have each year is to develop a relationship of kindness and respect with every child in my classroom.
Even though I am not a gardener, developing these relationships with my students always reminds me of the stages of plant growth. Our students come to us as seedlings. It is up to teachers to give those seedlings exactly what they need in just the right amount in order for them to thrive and grow. There are so many qualities our students need each day, but what I have found is that the needs of each student are often quite different.
Some students need a whole lot of kindness and empathy, while others need structure and high expectations. Some will thrive with praise, while others will shrivel in the spotlight. Some students bring so much baggage into the classroom, that they will require a great deal of patience and tenacity in order to break through their tough outer shells.
It is not always easy to determine what each student needs, but if teachers take the time to work through the possibilities, eventually, we will find exactly what each student needs in order to take root and flourish.
As students begin to feel comfortable, and they know that their teachers care about them, they begin to sprout. At times the growth is slow and steady. Sometimes you may question if any growth is occurring at all, but it is during those times that the roots are taking hold.
Students are seen taking risks, believing in their own abilities, and demonstrating confidence that wasn’t there earlier in the year. Students begin persevering in tasks that are hard, not necessarily because they want to, but because they know their teachers believe they are capable. You start hearing student conversations and are surprised to hear your words echoed in their own.
These are the times when you realize that your seedlings are starting to bloom as a result of the relationships that you started building with them on day one.
For me, the most important part of being a teacher is not about covering content.
I am confident enough in my skills and abilities as a teacher to know that the content will be taught, but that isn’t the main focus in my classroom. I am focused on teaching my students to be better, kinder human beings, and to send them out into the world a better person than they were when they arrived.
It is almost impossible to achieve that goal without first developing good relationships.
So, as we begin a new year with a new group of students, please remember to take the time to nurture your seedlings and grow strong relationships.
I can promise that if you do so, you will have a great year with an amazing display of blooms at the end of the year!