LANSING, Mich. — Katie Grass has been teaching first grade at Willow Ridge Elementary for 16 years. She's survived embarrassing classroom accidents, tear-inducing injuries at recess and, most recently, teaching during a pandemic.
"I think for a lot of older teachers, the technology was just very overwhelming," said Grass. "I mean, it was overwhelming for me, it was very overwhelming. So I think for a lot of people who could retire, they did. It was just too much change, too hard. Then to have a lot of the feedback that we have gotten from the public, it's hard to keep coming in some days."
The stresses caused by the pandemic prompted many teachers to consider leaving the classroom. In a survey done by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization, nearly one of four teachers surveyed in 2021 said they were likely to quit their jobs.
"We do see in the data in Michigan an increase in exits from the teacher workforce and the pandemic," said Katharine Strunk, faculty director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University. "This is going to have repercussions."
This exodus of experienced teachers is something Michigan can't afford. The state's teaching shortage has been building for a decade, and the pandemic may have just turned it into a crisis.
"So we have been in a shortage situation for a long time, it's not just the pandemic," said Strunk. "We have been seeing numbers of students enrolling in teacher prep programs go down for about the last decade."
Grass said when she applied to be a teacher 16 years ago there would be "800 applicants for the same job."
Willow Ridge Principal Jim Gee recounted people saying to him, "Good luck getting a job in Michigan."
According to data from the United States Department of Education, enrollment in teacher preparation programs began to drop significantly in 2010.
And other changes made the profession less lucrative for those already teaching. In 2012, a Michigan law required school workers who were paying nothing towards their retirement to start contributing 4 percent of their salaries.
"It was probably five, probably closer to 10 years ago that I had a conversation with one of our representatives about the changes they were making to the pension program and the insurance programs for teachers," Grass said. "And I was told that teachers will teach because they love teaching, and it doesn't matter what you pay them or things like that. And unfortunately, I think we're seeing that that's not the case. Historically, public school teachers had really good insurance and really good pensions, and they have slowly, slowly, slowly, chipped away and chipped away until now. It's tough."
Many young adults with the education to go into teaching are choosing careers that offer more money and less scrutiny.
Willow Ridge is lucky to be fully staffed with full-time teachers, but they currently have no substitute teachers and are lacking bus drivers.
If a teacher at Willow Ridge has to take a sick day, Grass said, "they'll pull the dean of students. The principal, Mr. Gee, has been subbing. I think they just made it so [teachers assistants] can sub. They have to fill it somehow."
In possible result, if the staffing trend continues, is that class sizes will get bigger. Studies show this leads to lower test scores, a higher rate of behavioral problems and teacher burnout.
"I have 17 students in here right now, and it's a dream," Grass said. "But I've had years where I had 29 kids, and that makes it very, very difficult in addition to everything else. It's burning you out. It's not worth it, unfortunately. And it scares me as a parent with kids in public schools."
Struck said old strategies aren't going to fix the problem.
"We're not going to get out of this by just sort of doing business as normal and hoping that people just come back into the teaching profession," she said.
To attract more teachers, Grand Ledge recently raised their pay scale to give new hires a bit of a boost.
The Lansing School District has formed a partnership with Michigan State University to create residencies for college students and hire them after graduation.
"We should be paying teachers who actually go into teaching by forgiving their loans, by giving scholarships to students who go to college to become teachers," said Strunk. "These are all things that we can do to lower the cost of entry into the profession, and to help others remain in the profession."
However money alone can't pull Michigan out of this pit, it also comes down to the way teachers are treated.
"You know, it's a positive, well respected profession," Gee said. "That's worth it to many people. But as some of that shifted, where again, the scrutiny, worried about the test scores all the time. Those negative pieces, the narratives that sometimes happened during that time frame, well, then the money that might have been okay five years ago... it's just not worth it to some to kind of be under that microscope or under that fire so much."
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