The teaching profession in New Jersey is in a state of struggle, which many believe could cause a severe teacher shortage. Evidence shows that many teachers are leaving the field, others are experiencing burnout, and fewer are choosing teaching as a career in the first place.
On December 15, NJ Spotlight News convened a virtual roundtable of New Jersey educators to discuss the challenges facing their profession during this unprecedented time and what can be done about them. The state commissioner of education, two teachers, a college dean and the superintendent of New Jersey’s capital city joined the conversation, which lasted more than an hour.
The discussion comes as the Murphy administration and local school districts try to address some of the biggest issues. Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy took one step further and signed into law a relaxation of one of the most controversial requirements to enter the field, the edTPA performance evaluation. A state task force is currently considering other options, with a deadline of late January.
But it’s much more than that, and the panelists exchanged a wide range of ideas about the obstacles and possible ways to fix them, from certification regulations to cultural shifts. What are the reasons that even at a young age there is less desire to be a teacher? How have teachers’ roles changed? What can help both now and in the long run? Read on or view the entire discussion to learn more.
Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, Ed.D., acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education
Participants of the discussion:
James Earlsuperintendent of the Trenton Public School District
Olivia Haasmath teacher, East Brunswick High School
Suzanne McCotterdean of the College of Education, College of New Jersey
Jennifer SkomialEducator of Future Educators, Academy of Education and Training, Morris County Vocational School District, 2019 New Jersey Teacher of the Year
Joanna Gaggis,Senior Correspondent, NJ Spotlight News
John Mooney,Founding Editor and Education Writer, NJ Spotlight News
Below are edited excerpts from the roundtable:
Dr. Angelica Allen-Macmillan: Unfortunately, New Jersey is no exception to the national teacher shortage, which is putting a strain on the education system as we also see fewer people entering the teaching profession.
From the 2012-2013 academic year to the 2019-2020 academic year, we processed an average of 40,000 certificates per year. And two years after that, we were down to 32,000 certificates a year….
I assure you, the governor and I are speaking [shoulder] to partner with educators in this state as we seek to protect, strengthen, and advance the teaching profession.
What is happening in your schools?
James Earl: Our teachers are delighted. They are disappointed. And they are probably our partners who cover classes for us and support students if their positions remain open for a long time. So we are seeing some of our veteran teachers and even some of our newer teachers become disillusioned with our profession.
Problems start at a young age
Jennifer Skomial: On the first day of school, I am very excited to meet everyone. And I always ask them, what do you want to be? Why did you decide to come to this [teacher program] program? And they are buzzing with excitement.
And then at some point in the first, maybe second lesson, I ask them, so what [do] do your family and friends think about it? And the tone in the room completely changes. … As we look around the room, unfortunately, over the last few years, many students say that either their immediate or extended family is not as supportive and they kind of try to push them into another area.
There are various reasons. I think sometimes they go right away – you might get paid better somewhere else. Or you’re going to get all that education, you have so many options.
What are the specific obstacles?
Suzanne McCotter: There are many hidden costs to becoming a teacher. We try to let our students know in advance that the cost will be up to $1,500. Factor in the cost of the exam, the assessments they have to take, the cost of certification, the additional fees to become a teacher, so $1,500 is out-of-pocket. And that doesn’t take into account that while you’re student teaching for two semesters at the end, you usually can’t work at the volume you’re used to working at…
We’re trying to do different kinds of things, but it really takes a concerted effort… One of the things that I believe is that if we continue to rely on just a bunch of junior high and high school students and try to recruit future teachers, we’re not going to do what we need.
Olivia Haas: We need to start earlier… We really try to start earlier in elementary and middle schools to get kids thinking about becoming teachers because by the time they start college in their junior year, it’s often too late.
Will special incentives or grants help?
Haas: I think they are definitely worth considering. I have colleagues that I know, other people that have left education because of the pay or because they put so much money into it and it takes a long time to see results. I have peers who, if they had taken math, could have finished a semester earlier and saved so much money on tuition for that extra semester, and saved money on student tutoring and all those tests.
Scomial: I might add another layer to it. As a vocational and technical educator, I have many colleagues who work in a wide variety of fields – plumbing, carpentry, cosmetology, health sciences – and we are unable to fill these positions at our school. … And one of the obstacles is the decrease in salary that they will face if they leave the field they are in.
The second thing is to become a teacher you are going to go through a two year program. Now it’s nights and weekends that you pay out of pocket to get your training. And often it is the teachers who say that the training does not seem adequate to prepare them to be teachers at this time.
Don’t blame teachers for the pandemic
McCotter: New data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows post-pandemic gaps in learning. And it is very important that we recognize that this was a social problem. The pandemic has shown where our systems have broken down when everything comes to a standstill. And it’s not the fault of the teachers. Every teacher I know has been worked to the bone trying to do a good job during the pandemic.
Teacher academies as one strategy
earl: I think they are very influential. And when you participate in teacher academy programs, you create support and networks of young people or individuals who are interested in education.
Haas: I think there is evidence that teachers have always decided they want to go into teaching because of the intrinsic rewards. It’s what we want to do, what we’re passionate about, what we’re passionate about. So this is where recruiting is really important. We need to encourage people.
For retention, for staying in the profession, for continuing the program, for jumping through all those hoops, that’s where we need extrinsic rewards. This is where we need some teacher cost relief and better salaries.
earl: We may have to look at the schedule differently…so that each child is in front of a teacher two or three times a week instead of never…
You can’t find this chemistry teacher and it may require general services in different areas if Hamilton [nearby] has a chemistry teacher and is willing to use a virtual environment to enter in Trenton. And Trenton has a lot to offer Hamilton in ESL or bilingual courses.
Consultations of special forces
McCotter: Schools should offer everything that we do not prepare teachers for. For example, there are no programs in the state that train family and consumer educators. However, every middle and high school must have at least one teacher and offer classes in these areas. So we need to look very carefully at the certification requirements and give superintendents more flexibility in who can teach these classes.
Skomial: I think one recommendation might be to just make sure all stakeholders are at the table. I saw in a recent article that the task force includes a lot of faculty and deans, but I think it would be great to make sure we even have some pre-service faculty or a few first and second years on the team. They are just going through it and can provide a lot of insight into what is needed.
Haas: I think you need to interview young people who are going into the profession, like preschool teachers and maybe even younger people who are considering teaching and maybe aren’t going to go into it because of the pay, because of of how much tuition costs due to student debt. And I think based on that, we need to look at what’s necessary, what’s appropriate to have as a requirement for certification in New Jersey.
Earl: i think [we] may consider measures alternative to training. … Maybe it doesn’t have to be personal, which allows us to look at our calendars and maybe not 180 days, be very flexible and make sure that we can train young people and lead them in front of certified and qualified teachers on a regular basis .
Haas: We need to really look at what the certification requirements are in New Jersey. And my one potential solution – this is going to sound simple – but get involved in your union because they’re there to support you, and having that support or not having that support is one of the main reasons why people leave.
Skomial: I am going to say something to fellow teachers listening: please share your passion and enthusiasm with the students in front of you and encourage them to follow this path of teaching. I think the more you share positivity about our profession, the more likely you are to influence those who want to enter it.
McCotter: I think there are far more people who respect teachers in the teaching profession than people who don’t. And these voices must be heard louder. Must appear at school board meetings. We need to tell teachers that they are doing a great job, and we need to actually talk about how important teaching is to our profession in our society.
Eeagle: It’s a great job, and we need great people doing the job for all the right reasons. … So join in. There are opportunities at some of our colleges and universities. Contact your local politicians, contact your local school districts. If you’re interested in education, let’s see how we can get you there.