In the Bellingham Public Schools, high-quality beginning teachers typically have been plentiful, because of our close affiliation with the teacher education programs at Western Washington University’s Woodring College of Education.
But in recent years, our district has started to experience the effects of a teacher shortage that has resulted in smaller hiring pools for specific teaching roles and a shrinking substitute teacher pool. A stronger economy has created more optimal conditions for teacher retirement; as a result, young teachers who might otherwise have become substitute teachers for the first few years after graduation are more in demand for immediate full-time work.
Other districts around the state of Washington report facing similar, if not more dire, circumstances.
We need to be diligent about who we recruit into the profession and ensure they have access to high quality teacher education.
The Professional Educator Standards Board for Washington state indicated recently that over the past five years school districts have seen a 250 percent increase in the demand for new teachers, largely because so many veteran teachers are retiring. Our state needs to produce more high-quality teachers, and the demand will only increase as more teaching veterans approach retirement.
In a January Seattle Times opinion piece, University of Washington College of Education Dean Mia Tuan called for a strategic response. Her answers to the problem included support for Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal to raise the minimum salary for teachers, and additional financial supports to help beginning teachers get a start in the career. She suggested a need to raise the status of teaching, to provide incentives to make the choice to become a teacher more attractive, and to support the professional learning of new teachers well into their early careers.
All good ideas, Dean Tuan. Those of us working in the school districts of Washington state would welcome a set of entry incentives, including higher salaries, that would make entry into teaching more attractive to the best and brightest. More support for mentoring and professional learning in the first five years of teaching is essential to retaining new teachers.
But entry incentives, higher salaries and early career mentoring are not enough; there are other critically important strategies that our state needs to consider.
Those of us who regularly hire, observe and evaluate new teachers know that the quality of the teacher education experience matters a lot. Not all teacher education programs are equal in terms of depth and excellence. Not all prepare new teachers with enough rich experience in the field.
When preparation is strong, it shows in the early practice of a new teacher. Exemplary programs like those at Western’s Woodring College are now being challenged by online options that are sometimes short on ongoing, guided field experiences. While it is tempting to try to find faster ways to train the teachers we seek, such shortcuts won’t get us the high-quality teachers that children so desperately need. No one wants their child to be the guinea pig who has to endure a year with a poorly prepared new teacher.
Teaching is difficult, complex work that takes time to learn. The more sustained contact with students we give teachers-in-training, with mentor teachers in the classroom and combined with outstanding course work, the better they will be once hired.
Dean Tuan’s idea of incentivizing the choice of teaching as a career assumes we can recruit the right students into the seats in those top-quality teacher education programs. This is not always the case. The Professional Educator Standards Board notes that some endorsement areas, such as elementary education, vacillate between shortage and surplus each year, whereas other areas, such as STEM and special education, need to be prioritized for increased teacher production.
More targeted preparation likely means more hands will be needed to provide the quality teacher education those new teachers need. Teacher education programs at both Woodring and the UW College of Education have spent the past few years moving aspects of the teacher education process into nearby school systems, hosting coursework and practicum experiences in real schools so that teachers-in-training are getting more robust time working elbow-to-elbow with practicing teachers in their classrooms earlier in the teacher education process.
The most outstanding teacher educators in our universities choose to work closely with schools and districts in this way because they see the benefit of added learning for their students. School districts like mine welcome these partnerships as a way to help “grow our bench” and ensure quality experiences earlier in the training process. These experiences provide valuable leadership opportunities for our district staff members who want to contribute to the next generation. We can do more to connect universities and districts in the field to support the growth and development of budding educators, and realize greater reciprocal benefits on both sides. However, the creation and sustenance of such partnerships takes time, funding and people support to make them work well.
The teacher shortage is upon us, so we need to act with intention. New ways to incentivize teaching as a career are certainly needed. But we also need to be diligent about who we recruit into the profession and ensure they have access to high quality teacher education. Further, how we staff teacher education faculties in high demand areas, and how we find new creative ways to make stronger partnerships between colleges of education and school districts are important additional facets of a solution.
Michael Copland is deputy superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools.