Credit: (AP Photo / Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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Jennifer Sifeli had planned to teach for another decade when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but a few months later she realized it was time to quit. Working an 18-hour day, almost not sleeping and constantly putting her own children in front of the TV so she could catch up with work, was starting to break her.

“I felt I put the needs of my students above my children,” said Chifelli, who last year left his job as a Spanish teacher at a high school in Somerset to open a café in Skillman.

She drags even more hours running a newly opened small business, but Chifelli says she’s calmer.

“I don’t miss a steady job. I always felt like I was just waiting for some parents to complain, “Oh, why did my child get a C on the test,” she said, recalling her 12-year training. “I could have lasted a little longer if the whole teaching profession had been respected.”

Nationwide restrictions on the number of teachers during the pandemic attracted much attention, and New Jersey was no exception. Nearly 4,000 teachers retired in the state last year, about 10% more than the previous year, according to the New Jersey Teachers Retirement and Annuity Fund. Earlier this month, National Association of Education reported that 55% of teachers are ready to leave the field earlier than planned, and school officials are concerned about a possible exit to New Jersey.

Fewer new teachers

But just as worrying is that fewer and fewer teachers are coming to replenish those ranks. Colleges and other organizations cite falling interest in their students before becoming teachers, which is only exacerbated by stress in the workplace while teaching during a pandemic.

“We’ve seen a real decline in people’s desire to be teachers.”

Even before the pandemic, teaching careers became less attractive to students. Degrees of education included 5.6% of all degrees awarded in New Jersey in 2020, up from 9.6% in 2009. At the bachelor’s level, the decline is even sharper: educational degrees account for 6.9% of all degrees awarded in 2020, and 11.76% in 2009 – 41% less.

And while New Jersey boasts one of the highest paid teachers in the country with an average salary of just over $ 70,000, fewer students sign up.

At Ryder University, college admissions generally declined during the pandemic, but no program has brought such a big drop as education. Less than 300 undergraduate students enrolled in educational majors in the fall, which is 28% less than four years ago.

“We are seeing a real decline in the number of people who want to be teachers,” said Jason Barr, dean of the College of Education and Social Services at Ryder. “Most of it was students who spent the last year or two in online learning, saying, ‘This is not a profession for me.'”

Bar said he gets calls almost every day from school districts looking for jobs, and while almost all of his students will get jobs when they graduate, this high-demand career just doesn’t look as appealing as other options to most young. people.

Barriers to entry

This is partly due to barriers to entering the teaching profession. For example, after completing coursework, students must devote time and significant money – up to $ 1,500, in addition to tuition and fees – to preparing for and passing assessment exams, which the study questioned as predictors of how well a teacher would perform in the classroom. Bar said the grades also put some students at a disadvantage.

“Some of our marginalized students find it harder to pass these teacher assessments – especially those students who come from high schools with worse grades,” Bar said.

These are the teachers the state needs most, he said, to eliminate the mismatch between its students, 56% of whom are colored people, and the teaching workforce, which is 84% ​​white.

The costs alone can be incredible, agreed Suzanne McCotter, dean of the School of Education at New Jersey College, who began raising funds for scholarships to offset fees after learning that some faculty pay for them on behalf of students.

“Children of different backgrounds or first generations are often the most affected by these additional costs,” McCotter said.

Waiver of certain requirements

In September, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Act a a five-year pilot program which will allow school districts to apply for a state permit to waive one certification requirement for up to 10% of the teachers they hire, provided that school administrations agree to provide additional support to these teachers. Requirements include grades but also a state minimum 3.0 grade point average for new teachers.

According to Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, a nonprofit that advocated for the legislation, the program could accelerate the hiring of hundreds of teachers in the fall.

Deans and principals of pedagogical programs are exploring other ways to engage more people in learning, including enrollment in middle and high schools, and better transition programs in public colleges. It was announced this week that high school students entering the Newark public school teacher training program could receive up to $ 3,700 in incentives.

McCotter, who held a webinar on pipeline shortages last month, said programs that support professionals transitioning into teaching careers should also be in the mix.

“Adults who change their careers cannot leave their lives without a salary for a year, so we need to find a way to finance residency programs,” she said. event.

So much pressure

However, such initiatives can only go so far, and growing pressure on the state to assess the requirements that hinder the development of the conveyor belt and make existing teachers more concerned about performance than reap the internal benefits that attracted them to the profession, especially, for example, connect with students and inspire them.

“The pressure on teachers has been very high,” McCotter said. “The things they enjoy are no longer something they spend their time on.”

“After all, it has to be the job people want.”

Even under pressure, students entering the profession retain hope. Michelle Wojtyla, a senior at Ryder University specializing in education with a focus on bilingual and special education, said teaching requires some resilience, which she welcomes.

“Now that a lot of teachers are leaving the field, it gives me a chance to intervene,” she said.

Credit: (Peter G. Borg / Ryder University)
Michelle Wojtyla, a senior at Ryder University, is majoring in education with an emphasis on bilingual and special education.

Catherine DeAliveira, a New Jersey college student who, after graduating, plans to teach math in a high school in a city school, said she was attracted to the opportunity to give back. As the daughter of Brazilian immigrants and the first in her family to enter college, DeAliveira hopes to be able to inspire other students to overcome obstacles in their path.

Inspiration, innovation

During a recent trip to Trenton High School, she noted that the teacher devotes extra time to three Afghan refugees who recently came to her class.

“I was so shocked. As a teacher, you really have to be flexible in everything, ”DeAliveira said.

To inspire more teachers such as Wojciech and DeAliveira, advocacy groups such as JerseyCAN are pushing for more flexibility and innovation around learning models. Among the ideas voiced are a reassessment of financial incentives to attract a young workforce that may not be so motivated by pensions; expanding part-time training options that allow professionals to play a role in K-12 education; and the use of technology to provide large-scale learning in multiple classrooms.

“The technology we’ve introduced because of the pandemic can really be used in new ways to help solve some of these problems,” Morgan said.

Ultimately, however, observers agree that teachers ’perceptions in the eyes of the public should also change. They point to a steady decline in respect for teachers in recent years.

“After all, it should be the job people want,” said Mark Weber, a special education policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, who is preparing to update his Report for 2020 on pipeline issues.

“It really has to face us now: why don’t people want to do this work, at least not to the same extent as before? For me, the answers are the simplest: salaries are not enough, benefits have decreased, work is more intense, and people do not feel support.

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