York College graduate Brian Baker has known since fifth grade that he wants to teach and help students. That school year, he had a particularly fun teacher, who was hands-on and ultimately changed his life.
“From that point on, I decided I wanted to be that fun teacher,” Baker said.
Baker might be the exception and not the rule — according to state and national data, the number of people choosing teaching as a career is trending downward.
Over the past several years, there has been a decline both in students majoring in education and graduates obtaining teaching certificates, according to Nicole Reigelman, press secretary and communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
There was a slight spike in the number of teaching certificates awarded in 2012-13 — because of a change in certifications, Reigelman explained — but overall ,there has been a decrease in the number of certificates awarded.
The number of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in education has decreased by 55 percent in the past 20 years, Reigelman said. The number of students actually graduating from education programs has decreased by 38.26 percent since 2000, and the number of people obtaining teaching certificates dropped 57.9 percent from 2010-11 to 2014-15, the most recent year for which data is available.
Local school district administrators have noticed a decline in the number of qualified professionals applying for teaching jobs as well. They’ve taken it upon themselves to implement different strategies to ensure schools are fully staffed with the best educators they can find.
The debate: Not everyone agrees there is a national teacher shortage, though several articles have been written about a national shortage in subject areas such as math, science and special education.
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post recently that argued the teacher shortage was a “myth.”
Walsh pointed to research from the American Institutes of Research that showed education programs turning out more teachers than nationally needed for 30 years. She believes if all or even most of those teachers are still teaching, there is no cause to believe there’s a shortage. However, Walsh contradicts herself and admits to a teaching shortage in math, science and special-education specialties.
York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle said the teacher shortage is real, though it doesn’t mean no one is applying to open positions. Merkle said fewer teachers are applying for open positions, and many of the applicants aren’t qualified.
“We have certainly been feeling it for at least the last two years,” Merkle said.
She said in the past, there have been six or eight applicants per position who would have been wonderful additions to the district, but now it’s a struggle for her to find one applicant she would be happy with, depending on the position and the timing of the hiring. She also said math and science are particularly difficult subjects to hire for normally, but it’s become even more challenging recently.
Merkle isn’t the only administrator to notice the teacher shortage. Robert Bernhard, director of human resources for the York City School District, said he also has had difficulty finding qualified teachers for the district lately, particularly teachers interested in math, science and teaching English language learners.
Why the decrease? Bernhard said along with the decrease in students majoring in education, he’s seen a number of young people graduate with degrees in education but then pursue a different career path. He speculated this could be because of the long hours, standardized testing requirements and lack of creativity teachers are allowed today.
In addition, recruiting young teachers for an urban environment presents its own set of challenges, Bernhard said. He said he believes many people have misconceptions about teaching in an urban school such as his district. With the district undergoing a recovery plan and its well-publicized financial struggles over the years, he said some prospective teachers might be wary of taking a position within the district.
“Our biggest challenge is overcoming mis-impressions that just aren’t true,” Bernhard said.
Merkle ventured that the drop she has seen in applicants and qualified applicants has to do with teaching becoming a more difficult profession in recent years. She said she believes more demands have been placed on public education, pointing to standardized testing and the pressure of public opinion.
“Public education has taken a bashing in the public eye, and that detracts from it as a position,” Merkle said.
Reigelman said districts across Pennsylvania have dealt with funding issues and teacher layoffs, resulting in increased class sizes, fewer resources and less professional support. However, she added, she believes teachers have “renewed energy and know that the work they do is incredibly valuable.”
Combating the shortage: There are a number of things administrators are doing to fight the challenges that seem to be associated with a teacher shortage.
Merkle said York Suburban has beefed up its orientation and training programs for new teachers.
“Even the most qualified teacher can always benefit from more training and professional development early on,” she said.
York Suburban has had to go stretches with a substitute teacher in place and has had to invest more time and resources in the recruitment and selection process, Merkle said. Even then, she said, the district has had difficulty finding short-term substitute teachers — who only need a bachelor’s degree, not a teaching certificate — putting even greater pressure on teachers.
Bernhard said he takes steps to actively recruit talented teachers in an attempt to lessen the impact on the district. He spends a lot of time talking online and in person with potential teachers, clearing up misconceptions about urban education but also being truthful about the “mental toughness” it takes to teach in a diverse environment.
“It’s important the district has a face out there to make sure the correct message is out there,” he said.
The state Department of Education isn’t ignoring the problem, either. Reigelman said the department has made certifications more flexible so that teachers can easily add on fifth- or sixth-grade certification to pre-existing pre-K through fourth-grade certificates, which makes it easier for principals to place teachers in schools.
Reigelman said the department also has been working with veterans to discount fees associated with teaching certificates and accelerate the review of their applications, which gives more jobs to veterans and their spouses and increases the number of potential teachers.
“The Department of Education understands the importance of keeping learning consistent, class sizes small and having a qualified teacher in every classroom,” Reigelman said.
Hope for the future: While administrators might be struggling to find qualified applicants for teaching positions, particularly in STEM, English learners education and special education areas, there are passionate students studying education right now. One example is Baker, who graduated from York College in December with a dual degree in early education and special education.
Teaching to the test, societal pressure and funding reductions haven’t made the Red Lion native doubt his ultimate career path. In fact, he will begin teaching at Wrightsville Elementary in the future. He did admit standardized testing makes him a little nervous because teacher’s jobs rely on students doing well on the exams.
“It’s scary that some kids just won’t do well on tests, no matter how hard you try, and then their test scores affect whether you keep your job or not,” he said. “That is stressful.”
Meagan Craver, originally from Spring Grove, is a middle level education and special education dual major at York College. Like Baker, she knew at an early age that she wanted to be a teacher. Craver, who will graduate in May 2017, worries about the constant changes that occur with education.
Overall, her love for teaching and her students remains steadfast, and she’s eager for graduation so she can begin her career as a teacher.
“I love the students, getting to know each student and getting to encourage them and let them know that someone loves them, cares about them and believes in them,” Craver said. “That’s what I like most: getting to love all my students.”