by EMILY SHUMAKER & RACHEL COOPER
In response to a national teacher shortage, the state of Virginia changed its legislation in 2018 to allow four-year programs, instead of five, to be sufficient for students to qualify and be licensed as teachers. The purpose of this legislation was to get more students into the teacher pipeline at a faster rate. Now, students can graduate in four years with a major in education as opposed to earning a bachelor’s in another subject and then completing teacher preparation requirements. To adapt to the change, UMW’s College of Education eliminated its five-year program and has transitioned to a four-year program.
The change reflects a larger trend within the state. In the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford County Public School districts alone, there were 800 teacher job openings at the start of the 2019-2020 school year that could not be filled.
According to Peter Kelly, Dean of the College of Education at UMW, “Virginia lost 5.6 percent of its teaching force during the last recession between 2008 and 2012. As the economy improved, this created increasing job opportunities, and fewer people chose to enter the teaching profession. Nationally, in the last 10 years, the number of people enrolled in teacher education programs dropped 39 percent.”
Other structural issues remain that hinder teacher recruitment.
Right to Work State
Virginia, unlike other states, is a “right-to-work” state. This status does not allow teachers to form teachers’ unions in order to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions, according to an article from the Institute of Southern Studies.
“There’s no collective bargaining to decide as a group and have a political platform to actually agree on with a government or a district how much you should be paid,” said John Broome, associate professor in the University of Mary Washington College of Education.
“Not only have our salaries been capped and kept at one level, but the amount of money that is budgeted per student has not been kept up with the cost of living today,” said Kelly Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in Chesterfield County, VA.
The average salary of a public school teacher in Virginia is $51,994 as of 2017-2018— a slight increase from 2010, when the average teacher salary was $48,365. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average income is $60,293.
“Teaching is called ‘a calling’ because teachers really have to be passionate about educating and caring for students. It’s definitely not pay that makes people want to teach,” said Haley Randall, a fifth-year student in the College of Education at UMW.
The 2019 average public school teacher salary in Loudoun County, VA is $70,831, as compared to $54,668 in Spotsylvania and $57,123 in Fredericksburg City. According to the Urban Institute, school district funding is affected by many factors, including cost of living. In Loudoun County, the higher public school teacher salary reflects the higher cost of living.
These salary differences play heavily into the teacher shortage in different areas.
“Some districts [that] are struggling financially to keep up with neighboring districts…it’s hard for them to recruit when [a teacher] can go ten miles in one direction and make $10,000 more,” said Kay-Wyatt.
Branding of the Teaching Profession
Many attribute a negative perception of the teaching profession to be a major cause of fewer students choosing teaching and the resulting critical teacher shortage.
“If we really built our brand of importance, like they do in other countries, and [we] paid them accordingly, I think you would see a very different pipeline of people wanting to go in because it is more respected,” said Kay-Wyatt.
“[In] our country… you have media and these shows that either make [teachers] an inspiration or… they can barely make ends meet and it’s a sad story,” said Broome.
Kay-Wyatt also commented that teachers themselves can be a detriment to the brand when they complain about the heavy load, rather than publicizing the small joys in the classroom.
A student’s own educational experience also affects their perception of teaching. Broome noted that students who did not have a positive experience with their own teachers are not going to want to go into that field.
“Everyone has some experience in the country with education in some form… everyone has feelings about teachers, may it be positive or negative,” said Broome.
Pressures of the Job
Another reason that students are not choosing teaching, or that teachers might leave the profession, is its heavy load and lack of resources and support.
“When you go to be a nurse, you don’t bring in your own gloves and mask,” said Kay-Wyatt. But as a teacher, you often have to pay out of pocket for classroom resources.
“Beyond the mental exhaustion of caring for 30-150+ children,” teachers must juggle managing their classroom, attending meetings outside of work hours, grading, preparing lesson plans, gathering resources, and communicating with parents, all while keeping up with the changing state requirements, according to Randall.
Kay-Wyatt says a teacher’s contracted hours are usually from 7:15a.m. to 2:30-3:00 p.m., but their work goes far beyond that and the 10 months that they have students in the classroom.
Added to that is pressure for their students to perform well on standardized tests.
“Since 1998, [we have] had pressure with high stakes testing like SOL tests. So teachers are more stressed right now than they used to be,” said Broome.
SOL tests were implemented to assess students in grades 3-12. According to a dissertation by the East Tennessee State University School of Graduate Studies, the scores of their students determine “a school’s and the division’s state accreditation and measures progress toward meeting federal targets.” Additionally, teachers who are shifted around to various subjects find it difficult to be current with the material needed to prepare their students for SOL tests.
These pressures contribute to low attrition rates. Even if school districts are able to fill their positions, there is no guarantee that the teachers will stay.
“Once we have recruited staff into our school systems, we tend to lose them … it used to be in the first three years, but now we see changes and we are losing folks in the first year,” said Kay-Wyatt.
Broome said, “They don’t leave because they don’t love their students, they leave because they have stress issues… and they often don’t feel supported or have the materials or resources to do the job the way they know they need to do it.”
Mary Washington Students Respond
Students say they have yet to feel the effects of UMW’s elimination of the five-year program. For students within the education program, there are mixed feelings about the decision.
“People were shocked… there are many students that are here because of the unique program itself,” said Carson Berrier, a sophomore history major in the Secondary Education part of the College of Education at UMW.
Students like Berrier feel UMW shouldn’t have lowered its standards because of a statewide issue.
“Most were, I feel, generally disappointed that the option was being taken away and not being added in addition to the bachelors option, so that students could have a choice,” said Jermaine Mason, a sophomore in the College of Education at UMW.
Some students feel the elimination of the fifth year will result in teachers being less equipped.
“I feel that having done the masters I am more equipped and prepared for teaching than I was when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree,” said Meagan Wilkinson, a fifth-year student in the UMW College of Education.
The biggest difference with this change is that teachers only get half a year of internship experience in the classroom, as opposed to an entire year.
However, Broome assured current students that “four-year students from before are amazing just like our five-year students are.”
“Not having a master’s degree may make teachers less equipped than what UMW might be used to training them for, but it will certainly not make them unequipped to be adequate teachers,” said Mason.
Lucas reflects that her “education has come from teaching. Every first year teacher, even with a masters degree, still has to do their first few years of teaching and it’s not easy. You learn by doing it … if you love teaching, you are chasing the knowledge to teach better.”
UMW hopes the change will further its commitment to do what is best for its current and future students and teachers.
“I am hoping that school divisions everywhere will continue to build the brand, to help support the pipeline, to produce quality teachers which come back to communities and school communities to really just change lives and change students,” said Kay-Wyatt.