GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It’s no secret that there’s a critical teacher shortage in the state of Michigan, it’s a problem that has been growing for years.
Wendy Winston is an Algebra teacher in the Grand Rapids Public School District and she says her students are not interested in becoming educators.
“If you survey them and ask them, you know, what do you want to do when you grow up? Very few of them are going to answer that they would like to be a teacher when they grow up. And when you ask them why? They'll kind of look at you funny and say that they see how we're treated and how hard we work and how little respect and reward we get for that hard work,” said Winston.
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She’s been an educator for 20 years, and since that time, Winston says the profession has taken a turn for the worse.
“So I think now, the job pool is much smaller. So there's much less competition and students who are graduating from college now with their teaching certificate. They have a better chance of getting a job wherever they're interested, maybe not the district they're interested in or but definitely the community that they're looking for, and also the content area that they prefer.”
Other teachers are seeing the same thing. Blake Mazurek teaches eighth grade U.S. history in the Grandville Public School District.
He says the profession is much different than when he started almost three decades ago.
“I knew I wasn't going to be rich like Bill Gates, right. But I also knew that there were going to be other benefits to the job beyond the actual teaching itself. But for to care for my family with insurance or a pension and things like this, which are, in some cases much diminished compared to 20 years ago, for new incoming teachers and all, you know, take those things in combination. It makes the profession potentially less attractive for individuals looking to follow the path.”
Not only are potential teachers not following the path, but current teachers in the state are looking elsewhere, too.
“A lot of people stepped away from the classroom, because they knew that they would be compensated more by working in a different career field. And then just the stress, there's a lot of accountability and a lot of feeling of failure on the educators side, because you can never really do enough, you can never really do everything that you want to, there's just not enough time. So you have to get used to doing it as much as you can and being okay with that. And a lot of a lot of teachers are perfectionist, and we're not okay with just doing as much as we can, we really want to do everything.”
The numbers from the Michigan Department of Education back up what Winston and Mazurek are saying.
A Workforce Data Report from February of 2020, just before the pandemic kicked in, showed 185,684 people with current, valid teaching certificates, but less than half of them (86,300) were actually employed in a teaching position.
Meanwhile, 68% of those under the age of 65 with valid teaching certificates still live in the state, but they’re just doing something else.
“Well, before the pandemic, we knew that there was a teacher shortage, we've had to focus on how we can recruit more teachers, particularly recruit a more diverse set of teachers from a more diverse set of life experiences, identities, professional backgrounds, etc. Because we just need more professionals to support these children, and support these families,” said Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist.
“We've had money in our budget for the past two years, that I've had to look at addressing this challenge specifically. And so that's going to continue, I do think the need for education professionals has increased with the pandemic, because of the different ways that we've had to deliver instruction. And I think that's only going to, frankly, you know, enrich the profession when we have more people available to us.”
John Helmholdt with Grand Rapids Public Schools had this to say about the teacher shortage: “It’s top to bottom. We really need to look at what more we can do as a state in a nation to uplift our public schools, to uplift the teaching profession. Also create greater equity, because districts that are in high-need, high-poverty districts like GRPS. We need to be putting priority focus on teachers, highly qualified teachers, in our schools support those students who are most susceptible to the learning loss as well as the social, emotional issues that were created by the shutdown on this global pandemic."
The teachers also believe getting a seat at the legislative table could help.
”By, you know, giving us more power in our classrooms, asking educators what we think needs to change, and, and what policies we think should be implemented or removed. There lately, there have been a lot of policies coming that are outside of the school district's control, and they're outside of the classroom and teachers control. They're just kind of mandated from above, like at the state level, or the federal level,” said Winston.
“When politicians make decisions based on politics as opposed to what is best for our students, what's best for our communities, and not listening to teachers. That is something that I think is so critical, and there are many who feel like our voice as professionals is ignored,” said Mazurek.
“We need to be listened to, and I'm grateful that there are many of our local representatives and senators who I meet with on a regular basis to listen to educators.”
The State Department of Education is listening. They implemented the Future Proud Michigan Educator Program earlier this year. It awards school districts $10,000 to create learning models to get students excited about the teaching profession.
“So we always want to focus on creating more incentives for people to choose education as a profession. And we're going to work to support those educators. If they know they're supported, I think more people will be willing to come to the profession,” said Gilchrist.
Just like Blake Mazurek did 28 years ago.
“We need young people to engage and become educators, we need those folks that are motivated to want to work with young people to make that impact on society in so many ways, and the rewards that still come with a profession, those are the things that we really want to make sure that young people understand is that it's still a very fulfilling profession, even with the challenges we face.”