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Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to fill the approximately 180,000 teacher vacancies expected in the coming decade. Combining short- and long-term solutions, her proposals deserve our attention if not support. But before considering her solutions, we need to understand the problem.The past two years have felt like whiplash when it comes to public opinion of teachers and schools.
As the pandemic emerged, teachers were heroes. But as confusion mounted over the safety of in-person instruction and the effectiveness of remote learning, schools and teacher unions were easy targets for anxiety and anger and this trickled down to teachers.
An effective manufactured crisis over critical race theory invading schools was spread to divert attention away from Republican culpability for the Jan. 6 attack, and once again teachers were unfairly bearing the brunt of public anger and outrage.
Your average teacher doesn’t advocate critical race theory. Your average teacher wants to be in classrooms teaching children, not interacting with them over Zoom. But our collective outrage is driving teachers away from the profession.
In New York, enrollment in state teacher education programs decreased by more than 53 percent over the past decade.
Can you blame a young person for not wanting to be the target of public outrage while doing a job that is extraordinarily challenging on even the best of days?
Imagine the elementary school teachers who are responsible for helping children struggling to read, while managing a mental health crisis and supporting kids who have extremely challenging home lives.
On top of it all, teachers must lead active shooter drills. They witness the faces of innocent 7 -year-olds as they are told to hide in their cubbies. They anguish over what to tell children about why they are doing this in a way that they will understand and that their parents will support.
At the end of a long day, teachers drive home, listening to people on the radio call them overpaid with an easy life and their summers off. They hear others deny that school shootings are a real thing. They are called radicals and Marxists.
Most teachers only think about how to make sure students feel loved and supported when the world around them feels devoid of hope. These hardworking teachers feel misunderstood, unsupported and demoralized.
The fact is students are struggling and they desperately need the good teachers we are driving away.
The teacher shortage will not fix itself, so I am heartened by Hochul’s promising approach to school reform.
In the short-term, it is wise to allow retired teachers to return to the classroom, even if this means paying them a fair wage on top of their pension.
But the longer-term solution is what we must focus on. Traditional teacher education programs should partner with school districts, and support Hochul’s vision for an Empire State Teacher Residency Program. Elite boarding schools in the United States run highly effective teacher residency programs. They take promising students without a background in education and they slowly transition these students into full-time teaching. This is a model that we can use in the state, and it is exciting to see Hochul proposing a program like it.
New York should also take lessons from states like Virginia and Michigan. In Virginia, universities collaborate to create cutting-edge literacy programs tailored to Virginia’s students. New York needs more of this type of collaboration. Universities, colleges and school districts can create shared resources that can be used in the classroom, with local partnerships creating resources that are uniquely tailored to local needs.
In Michigan, teacher education is focused on developing the skills and competencies that make teachers effective. Too many teachers leave the profession because they don’t feel adequately prepared for the challenges of real classrooms. On-the-job teacher training isn’t enough. It needs to be grounded in best practices, and New York — like Michigan — should focus on preparing teachers to implement high-impact practices that make the transition to teaching more successful.
New York citizens must help by working together to give children the futures they deserve. The best way to do this is to advocate for well-prepared teachers, who will be much more effective when they are supported rather than attacked. Hochul’s proposals recognize this and are to be commended.
We need to stop wasting time fighting against an enemy that doesn’t exist and create conditions that will build the teachers our children deserve.
Jeff Frank of Canton is an associate professor of education at St. Lawrence University.
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