Some experts say the teacher shortage in Virginia is now a crisis. And not only is there a downward trend in enrollment in teaching curriculums overall, but the lack of African-Americans in that field is even more alarming at a time when diversity in classrooms is becoming increasingly necessary. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini has this overview.
Crowded classrooms and less one-on-one attention for students, overworked teachers who also have to serve as social workers and psychologists, plus mountains of paperwork… The situation in Virginia schools has gotten worse.
STEVEN STAPLES: I think we're approaching what we would call "crisis proportions."
Steven Staples is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Virginia Department of Education.
STAPLES: As of last year, there were over 1,000 vacant positions in October of the school year when obviously students were already back in school. So that's a pretty serious problem I think for all school divisions.
Mathematics, Special Education and Science are the areas with the most need – but the problem is reaching across the entire curriculum spectrum. That includes teaching jobs in elementary schools, which used to be the easier positions to fill. Part of the problem is a shrinking pool of teaching students in the pipeline.
JIM LIVINGSTON: To make problems worse, since 2008, there's been a drop of 30% in the number of college students enrolling in teacher preparation programs in the Commonwealth.
That’s Jim Livingston, President of the Virginia Education Association.
LIVINGSTON: What's happening is our teacher pipeline is literally drying up at a time when we are seeing a spike in retirements.
Everyone agrees on a number of factors: there is pay…
LIVINGSTON: Currently, at the end of last year, Virginia now ranks 32nd in average teacher salary: almost $8,000 behind the national average.
There is the cost of training…
STAPLES: Many universities ended up moving to a five-year program where students would need to stay to get a master’s in order to get licensed, not what it previously been undergraduate. And what we're hearing from some colleges and universities is that kids were willing to stay and get a four-year degree and come out and teach, but that fifth year was costly, and they thought that impacted it.
Also, the profession has lost respect over the years.
DIAS: I can talk with older mentors in the community who can tell me stories about when they were growing up, teachers were kind of on the same level as doctors and lawyers, and now teaching doesn't get that same respect.
That’s Tamara Dias. A former Spanish teacher, she is now the Executive Director of African-American Teaching Fellows, an organization in Charlottesville working to develop and retain African-American teachers to support the schools in Albemarle County and Charlottesville City. She mentions another factor: the high test requirements to become a teacher in Virginia.
DIAS: I've had colleagues that wanted to be teachers and are now teachers in North Carolina or in Maryland because of one test or one score. I also have teachers who I'm friends with in Virginia who took a test four times. And so you're thinking about playing $100-plus four times just to become a teacher in a field where you already don't make a lot of money. [laughs]
House Delegate David Toscano says he is well aware of the issue.
DAVID TOSCANO: In this next budget, I think the governor will have more money for teachers and I am going to be fully supportive of that; and we'll try to be working on some new regulations that will make it easier for teachers to want to stay in the profession. We can pass some laws to do that, and we can pass some budgetary amendments that will change the salary schedule for teachers.
But there’s something else: parallel to the general trend, African-American students are even less likely to enroll in teacher preparation programs.
DIAS: I have other students who would say "I'm a first-generation college student and I have to make it and I have to be able to come back and help my family. I can't help my family on a teaching salary.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, nearly half of students in public Virginia schools are minority students, while only 16% of teachers are non-white. In Albemarle County, a third of the student body is non-white, but only 8% of their teachers are non-white. And Dias says that’s important.
DIAS: For the nation to be so diverse, for this to be such a diverse community, and to have students say that "I've never had a teacher who looks like me:" that is impactful.
So what can be done? Statewide measures could encourage more student teachers, whether it be in the form of grants, by taking down some barriers to licensure through loan forgiveness or reverting to an undergraduate degree.
STAPLES: I think you'll see some of those percolating through policy decisions either on the General Assembly side or the State Board of Education side over the next few months.
As for teachers of color, the Virginia Department of Education partnered with the Virginia Education Association to set up a Virginia Minority Educator Recruitment Summit back in February - another one is planned for the spring.
DIAS: We actually offered six of our fellows the chance - we took them down to Richmond for the Summit. A lot of our fellows - because we’re still trying to increase diversity - are the only teachers of color in their schools. So for them to attend a professional conference where they can meet other teachers of color was a great opportunity. They kind of got to see role models because they saw people who are in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and in education so they could see "This is what I could do in 15 or 20 years, here's how I could still impact education."