As educators sound the alarm about nationwide teacher shortages, students and leaders at the University of Kentucky College of Education are focusing on what higher education and communities can do to help.
On the latest episode of The Learning Project, a podcast of the UK College of Education, the conversation focuses on how the college is playing a role in filling substitute teacher shortages, as well as the need to attract and prepare more students for successful careers in education.
Following decades of declining enrollment in teacher education programs across the U.S. and recent pandemic stresses on the profession, school systems have struggled to maintain sufficient staffing to keep schools open in 2021 and 2022.
Hearing the call for help, College of Education leaders stepped forward with a thoughtful approach to balance partner school districts’ need for substitutes while enhancing the experience of students preparing for the profession.
“In Kentucky, we actually have a statute that doesn’t allow student teachers to get paid. Thankfully, in Spring 2021, the state was able to waive that statute for our students to serve as substitutes and help with the shortage,” said Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, senior associate dean for academic programs and partnerships in the College of Education.
Students were able to fill more than 450 substitute spots in Spring 2021 and almost as many this past fall. Mohr-Schroeder predicts that the number may be surpassed this semester, based on the number of requests for students to substitute thus far.
“Being able to substitute has really been a validation of my love for teaching and it has shown me that I enjoy being in class all day with students and forming those bonds with them,” said Kate Black, a senior elementary education major.
When schools are unable to secure enough substitute teachers, College of Education students hired as substitutes can stay in the classroom where they already serve, allowing the main teacher to fill in for a colleague. This arrangement allows college students to take over the classroom where they have been honing their teaching skills, rather than be in front of a class of students they have never taught.
“One of the things you’ll hear a million times in school is that behavior management is so important. That’s something that’s so daunting as a new teacher or as a student teacher,” Black said. “After having a chance to substitute in my student teaching placement, I really have gotten to feel more confident in myself and my behavior management abilities. I feel like I’ve done it on my own, and I know I can do it now.”
College leaders say the experience highlights a critical point in the quest to find long-term solutions to the growing need for teachers: Effective teaching requires much more than subject knowledge.
“We need to address teacher shortages in a way that doesn’t disadvantage students because if we are going to be focused on how can we rush people into the classroom, they will be intimidated, they won’t have the experience they need to be successful and they won’t stay,” said UK College of Education Dean Julian Vasquez Heilig. “We have to think about how that could sabotage our educational system.”
Elementary education senior Divya Lyman agrees, noting the key role teachers play in students’ lives. “It’s more than a data sharing role, but, as you know, a socio-emotional connection with teachers that these students are happy to see every day,” Lyman said. “I think that’s the most important thing. That’s what keeps me going throughout my student teaching and continues to push me to pursue this profession and be the best teacher I can be for my students.”
Otherwise, teaching becomes “sterile,” Mohr-Schroeder said. “We want to see them walking in the classroom with a sense of purpose and drive and passion and empathy. That’s why we’re there and I think it is kind of hard to tease out sometimes, especially when you’re starting out in the classroom.”
Students in the teacher education program at UK are immersed in field experiences early in their studies and gradually build their skillsets and understanding of not only what they are teaching but how to teach.
While these experiences help aspiring teachers gain confidence in their professional abilities, the path to selecting education as a major in college can be filled with questions and uncertainty. To help counter that, the college shares real-life stories of aspiring teachers to inspire high school students to consider education as a career choice.
“What we know about Generation Z is that you care; you want to make a difference,” said Vasquez Heilig. “And so that’s how the college has been making the case to young people. We want to bring Generation Z to the teacher education program because we want them to have that opportunity to leave a legacy.”
For Lyman, leaving a legacy means creating a community of understanding. She feels that, without having that foundation, it is difficult for academic growth and learning to occur.
“Just the fact that I’m a different ethnicity, will help students understand there are different perspectives, not just in their classroom but in an authoritative position. I didn’t understand how much of a difference I would make until I was in the classroom. I kind of surprised myself. Having my perspective will help me as a teacher,” Lyman said.
Mohr-Schroeder said Lyman’s story emphasizes the importance of recruiting a diverse group of students to education careers.
“We know from research that students in classrooms where they have teachers that look like them or come from backgrounds like them, they develop more of a relationship with the teacher and their teacher becomes a mentor,” Mohr-Schroeder said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the short-term and long-term need for keeping the teacher workforce strong with well-prepared and high-quality educators.
“There’s a lot of pressure on educators and I think we’ve got to think about how we don’t rush the process and we make sure that we are sending experienced and prepared teachers to every single student. How do we do that in a way that allows Generation Z to come into the profession to thrive and to stay,” Vasquez Heilig said.
Teacher preparation programs play a key role in educator success, Black believes. “The biggest thing going into teaching is the community that you make in the college,” Black said. “Look into the supporting organizations in your college and get to know your fellow students, because they can really help and push you forward in school and professionally. I didn’t realize until I truly got deeper into the education program that I would be more effective, not just classroom teaching, but in the social/emotional aspect of learning. I just can’t say enough good things about the resources that we’ve had.”
Lyman feels her courses have prepared her well in classroom management and content, but also as a passionate teacher who will be able to inspire her students to be successful learners.
“I’ve made it this far and I honestly can’t wait to graduate. I’m excited to see what the future holds within my academic career and my professional career,” Lyman said. “It’s truly the most rewarding profession anyone can experience and the best decision I’ve ever made.”
To learn more about becoming a teacher, visit https://education.uky.edu/admissions/become-a-teacher-at-uk/.