Kristen Haase

Kristen Haase

I thought last school year was going to be the most challenging one of my 20-year career as an educator in the School District of Lancaster, most recently as an English language development teacher.

My students struggled during virtual learning during the first half of the year due to technology issues, language barriers and the difficulty of staying engaged and forming relationships over a screen. I couldn’t wait to return to the classroom in person so my colleagues and I could provide our students with all the academic and social-emotional support they needed to recover from over a year of trauma and interrupted learning.

Instead, my students and I were met with even more overwhelming challenges this school year. In my district and districts across the county, there are unprecedented numbers of vacancies for teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff, making a return to normal almost impossible. Teachers like me are frequently asked to cover for open vacancies, add additional students onto already large caseloads for special education or English language, or combine classes due to insufficient staff. We are adding more and more to our already very full plates.

The increased workload and stress, in turn, lead to burnout, which is causing many to question their longevity in our profession. Across the country, teacher morale in urban, suburban, and rural districts is at an all-time low. In a recent National Education Association poll, 55% of teachers say they plan to leave teaching sooner than originally planned as a result of the pandemic, with 90% of teachers reporting feelings of burnout and 80% reporting more work obligations due to staff shortages and departures. I frequently hear comments like “I don’t know how much more I can take” and “I can’t do this anymore” from colleagues, rookie and veteran alike.

While the pandemic has exacerbated the national teacher shortage, it is only one factor contributing to this perfect storm. Over the past 10 years, the number of new teaching certificates issued in Pennsylvania has dropped by two-thirds from more than 21,000 to under 7,000, driven largely by declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s teacher workforce is aging, with 16% of teachers at or approaching retirement age and many more considering early retirement. Currently in Pennsylvania, teachers of color only make up 6% of the teacher workforce while 36% of students in public schools are people of color — one of the worst disparities in the country. And half of new teachers in Pennsylvania leave their school or the profession within the first five years, with retention rates even lower for teachers of color.

The consequences of this crisis, if not addressed, are self-evident and dire. Currently, districts are scrambling to plug the dam; however, this dam is crumbling. Already, vacancies are causing instruction to be interrupted and class sizes to grow, causing students to fall behind. In the long term, if we do not stabilize, support and grow the teacher workforce, students — especially those in high-poverty districts — will fall irreparably behind academically and socially, at a time when their needs are greater than ever.

If teacher shortages are allowed to undermine Pennsylvania’s education system, there will be ripple effects that threaten our entire state’s future economy and workforce. Without strong and caring teachers, a generation of students could be lost, with devastating effects on our future workforce and tax base.

While the picture may seem bleak, an unprecedented state budget surplus offers opportunities to invest in short-term and long-term strategies policymakers can use to rebuild the teacher pipeline.

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 99 has bipartisan support and would improve teacher recruitment and diversity by expanding youth pathways into teaching and dedicating grant funds to educator preparation programs. State Senate Bill 224, which has passed in the Senate, would make it easier for out-of-state teachers to teach in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania House and Senate Democrats have proposed pouring $250 million into the educator pipeline, and this could be transformative. And Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal includes an increase to minimum teacher salaries and funding for scholarships for future teachers. Other states, including Tennessee and Arkansas, are taking bold and creative steps to expand the teacher pipeline; Pennsylvania should do the same.

As we move into budget season, now is the time for policymakers to take bold action to address this crisis. Investing in a strong and diverse teacher pipeline is investing in our children’s future. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” It is time to give our students the gift of a bright educational future. The right time is right now.

Kristen Haase is an English development teacher at Carter & MacRae Elementary in the School District of Lancaster and a policy fellow with Teach Plus, which seeks to empower teachers to take leadership over key educational policy and practice issues.

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