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Karen Magee: Addressing New York’s Teacher Shortage

There has been a lot of hand-wringing lately about New York’s teacher shortage.

In many places, school districts are having difficulty filling open teaching positions – and the problem is likely to get much worse.  About one-third of New York teachers are approaching – or already past – their anticipated retirement age.

The teacher shortage is most acute for districts needing teachers in subjects like physics, chemistry and math, as well as the foreign languages and special education.  Small, rural districts and larger urban districts seem to be having the most difficult time attracting and retaining qualified teachers.

The shortage extends to substitute teachers, as well.  As the economy improves, many school districts report they are finding it more difficult to attract qualified subs.

Ask teachers anywhere if they are surprised by this news and, I promise, you’ll hear a chorus of all-knowing laughter.

What did policymakers expect would happen if, over a prolonged period of time, they attacked teachers and denigrated the profession? 

What did they expect when people who know little or nothing about teaching  and how public education works slash budgets and pass laws mandating incessant testing, not teaching and learning?  Why is anyone surprised that fewer young people are choosing teaching as a career?

In fact, over the last five years, the number of students entering teacher education programs in New York has declined by 46 percent.

In recent months, the State Education Department, Regents and the SUNY chancellor have all recommended steps to help districts attract and retain teachers. They’ve even gone so far as hastening the licensing process for teachers who come here from other states.  They also made it easier for districts to keep long-term substitutes.

Most of this is, frankly, little more than a Band-Aid.  Some so-called solutions make things worse:  SUNY’s Teach New York report demonstrated a disturbing disconnect between those in the Ivory Tower and those professionals doing the real work training New York’s future educators.

As a teacher myself and president of the union representing New York’s teachers, the solutions to the teacher shortage are surprisingly simple.  

It starts with respect. Teaching is an exalted profession.  Legislators and policymakers should revere and honor teachers, lifting the profession and making it more attractive to young people.

Teachers must have a more prominent role in setting policy.  Legislators and policymakers would never tell a surgeon how to operate, or a Wall Street banker how to invest, but these folks aren’t shy about telling teachers what – and how – to teach. That’s got to change. Teachers must be given a real voice in the direction of their profession.

Teacher salaries must improve. While pay in some parts of the state is fair, in many places teachers earn far less than other professionals with masters’ degrees and the same experience.  It’s difficult to entice a young person saddled with student loan debt to become a chemistry teacher when they can earn tens of thousands of dollars more as a chemist for a large corporation.

School districts need support, too.  The state can help districts by investing more in mentoring programs and in professional development.  Here’s a little secret -- roughly one third of teachers who enter the profession leave within about five years.

New York can reverse this trend by providing real support, professional development and mentoring.

If young teachers feel supported; get the professional training they need; have a voice in what happens in their classrooms and can earn a decent living, the teacher shortage can be turned around.

It’s to everyone’s benefit – especially our students – for New York State to do these things to attract the best people into the teaching profession, and keep them there.

Karen E. Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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