It’s a tough time to be a teacher. They’re burned out, they’re demoralized, they’re facing hostility from parents, they’re not paid very well, and they’re either dreading or dreaming of a return to remote learning—a decision that most of them don’t have the power to control.
These circumstances are squeezing the university programs that train future teachers. The challenge of attracting students into and graduating them from education departments at colleges predates the pandemic, experts say, and yet the pressures of the past two years have worsened the situation at some institutions.
After all, a glimpse into the lives of educators working in schools right now reveals problem after problem with few solutions in sight—not exactly reassuring for someone considering a career in teaching.
Although the majority of educator-preparation programs saw no or relatively small enrollment changes in fall of 2020 and fall of 2021, 20 percent of institutions saw a decline in new undergrad enrollment that exceeded 10 percent, according to survey data from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. And in fall 2021, 13 percent of responding institutions reported significant declines in new graduate student enrollment.
“Our sense from our members is that this has exacerbated the trend we had already been seeing of declining student interest in going into teaching,” says Jacqueline E. King, consultant for research, policy and advocacy at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Some institutions are even cutting teacher degree programs, such as Oklahoma City University, which has suspended its elementary education and early childhood education tracks.
“We just don’t have the student population to support our classes,” says Heather Sparks, director of teacher education at Oklahoma City University. “It got to the point where it was unsustainable. When class sizes started dropping below 10, it wasn’t something the university could support.”
Falling enrollment in teacher-prep programs seems like bad news for schools that already were struggling to hire and keep enough teachers. It’s a problem with a long history, and some experts say that even if colleges can graduate more students with teaching degrees, that alone won’t reverse the trend without broader reforms.
“That doesn’t solve the retention piece,” says Paul Gediman, executive director for marketing and advancement at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, explaining that many new teachers leave the profession within three years. “Why are they leaving? The easy answers are: We don’t pay teachers. We don’t value education.”
But leaders of college education programs are fighting fatalism by trying new strategies for recruiting and training America’s next batch of teachers. Several efforts focus on an acute pain point: the mismatch between the high cost to earn a degree in teaching and the low pay the profession offers. Others are thinking even bigger, by advocating for making education jobs more sustainable for workers.
Efforts that seem to be working have had a common ingredient: close ties between colleges and local K-12 school districts.
“The strength of the collaboration between K-12 districts and higher education has been the saving grace—or not,” for colleges that lacked good relationships, says Cassandra Herring, president and CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity. “Educator preparation programs and strong K-12 partners have really been innovative in thinking, ‘What are the experiences candidates can have in schools in this moment?’”
Through these efforts, some teacher-prep degree programs have even countered trends by increasing their enrollments. Here’s how colleges are adapting to find and train the teachers of tomorrow.
Low teacher salaries are a concern among many education students at Oklahoma City University, according to Sparks, the director of teacher education there. She thinks that’s partly to blame for falling enrollments that led to the cutbacks there.
“Taking out loans to earn a college degree, then entering a profession where they can’t pay those loans off—that’s a challenge,” she explains.
So for the first time, this academic year education students are eligible to receive a stipend during their student-teaching internships. Based on a recommendation made in 2019 by a “teacher shortage task force” commissioned by the Oklahoma department of education, the state allocated some of its COVID-relief money to pay student-teachers a total of $3,250—half up front, and half after they’re hired into a teaching job by a school district.
“We have said for years, students are already paying tuition to do their student-teaching. They can’t work a job typically when they student-teach, it’s just too overwhelming,” Sparks says.
The new stipend—intended to pay student-teachers about $50 a day— “is a nice bump,” she adds. “If we continue to have those kinds of solutions, we’ll likely see an increase in enrollment.”
Strategic Communications and Outreach
In the communities surrounding Western Kentucky University, rumors were circulating that teaching was just too tough a profession to enter.
“It’s not necessarily actual data or actual information,” says Corinne Murphy, dean of the university’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. Instead, people were hearing stories that getting a teaching credential required “so many tests, so many rules, and too many barriers that it’s not worth it,” she adds. “We knew it is worth it.”
Although the university’s teacher preparation programs had been adapting to lower some barriers, especially to create flexibility for working adults considering returning to school to train for a teaching career, word about those changes didn’t seem to be spreading to the right people. So the university developed a strategic communications plan to share what its leaders considered to be the good news.
Part of that was crafting a message about the important role teachers play in strengthening their neighborhoods and regions.
“When the tornadoes hit Bowling Green, principals and teachers were some of the first people on the ground” to help with recovery, Murphy says. “That was one very acute example of how critical the school systems are to the health of our communities.”
Leaders in the education program have worked to promote stories about the teachers they’re training in the media (including local NPR interviews), by producing video stories (such as one about a bus driver-turned-teacher) and through social media posts on Twitter, TikTok and Facebook (like these posts about that former-bus driver).
“As much as we can, we’re really rallying around celebrating, very publicly, the teachers and the students in the classrooms,” Murphy says. “We are running multiple ads all the time. Any person is the potential person to be the next teacher.”
The effort has also meant looking for future teachers in new places. The university is working with school district “grow your own” programs, which provide scholarships for school support workers to train for teaching certifications at Western Kentucky University and then return to their districts to fill teaching jobs.
A recent information session for school support workers drew more than 50 people.
“We have office staff, we have cafeteria workers, folks who work as academic advisors,” Murphy says. “These are individuals who love kids, they love teenagers and they love making a difference.”
This communications outreach seems to be paying off. Western Kentucky University’s graduate teacher-prep programs have seen a three-fold increase in enrollment in the last three years, from about 50 students to 150 students.
And the social media posts about teacher training programs are eliciting enthusiasm.
“We see other people tagging people they think might be interested: ‘Hey, you should be looking at this!’” Murphy says. “It’s a fantastic way to validate a lot of these efforts.”
Hiring Students as Substitutes
The University of Central Florida’s undergrad program to train special-education teachers was suspended when its coordinator retired. Rebecca Hines consented to lead its relaunch in 2017, but on her terms.
“I agreed to bring it back only if it could be something different and make an immediate impact for our local schools,” the associate professor says.
To stay attuned to the needs of those schools, Hines tries to build and maintain strong relationships with local school leaders. A district leader recently told Hines that one of her biggest problems lately is finding substitute teachers. It’s a challenge for schools across the country that the pandemic has intensified. District and state leaders have come up with temporary solutions like calling on parents and members of the National Guard to volunteer, or moving classes online.
So Hines thought up a solution. What if her college students got some of their required classroom experience by working as paid substitute teachers?
For school districts, the benefit of such an arrangement would be “getting a really motivated, educated, substitute teacher,” Hines says. For students, one benefit would be the pay.
“It breaks my heart when I have students who are trying to get in their field work, but they are working at Disney or waiting tables,” Hines says. “This lets them focus their efforts on education.”
Another upside for students would be the opportunity to try out different classroom environments.
“This problem of attrition in our field, I firmly believe it’s in part because people don’t understand the job before they get out there,” Hines says. “As someone who worked as a substitute teacher before I was a teacher, I learned more subbing than doing anything else, ever, to prepare for teaching. I saw a variety of classrooms, a variety of age groups, and I could make a really informed decision about what I wanted to do career-wise as a teacher.”
So this semester, Hines’ students have the option of filling a practicum course requirement by subbing in local schools for 15 days. In addition to that classroom time, student-subs participate in coaching conversations with university faculty.
Although the effort is brand-new, so far it seems to be working, Hines says. It builds on other innovations she has helped to put in place at the university, such as arrangements that allow for college students to complete some coursework while working as paid paraprofessionals in schools.
Hines says she initially encountered resistance to the idea of helping students get paid while doing field work. But through research and conversations with leaders at schools and the university, she discovered that a prohibition on paying teacher-candidates was more a tradition than a rock-solid rule, and one that it could be changed.
The special-education program has grown from about 10 enrolled students when it restarted to about 100 students now. Hines credits that growth to being “nimble and flexible.”
“Sometimes in higher ed, it is hard for people to rethink things that have been in place since the conception of their program,” Hines says. “It’s time to go back and look critically at some of those policies and practices.”
Trying Virtual Simulation
When Herring of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity was a dean of education at Hampton University, one way she nudged students to consider careers in teaching was inviting them to try out a mixed-reality simulation of leading a classroom. The experience often surprised students, Herring says, giving them insight into how the teaching they might do in the future could be more creative than, more technologically driven than, or simply different from the instruction they experienced growing up in schools.
“Overwhelmingly people were like, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like that,’” Herring says.
During the pandemic, she has seen increased openness at college teacher-prep programs to using technology such as mixed-reality simulation as a way to train students. Some of that new interest came initially from a place of desperation, Herring acknowledges, among faculty who couldn’t figure out how to place teacher candidates in physical classrooms due to health crisis challenges.
But, Herring adds, “that pressure point has opened the eyes and the opportunity to even more, deeper engagement.”
Herring is excited about simulation as a tool for training education students early in their college careers—because it allows them to “practice the work of teaching without doing any harm” to actual children, she says. “Not only does it give you the ability to, in real time, do the work of teaching, but you can pause the simulation, you can try it again, you can get feedback, you can get help,” she adds.
In a report from Branch Alliance of lessons learned during the pandemic, a professor and associate dean at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley describes a simulation tool that allowed education students to interact with avatars in order to build their confidence.
“The luxury of using these safe spaces for learning is that as our teacher candidates feel ‘stuck,’ they have their coach and peers to support them in-the-moment,” professor Criselda G. Garcia wrote.
That experience may be especially valuable when training future teachers to think about how their work creates or erodes equity in the classroom, Herring says—a priority for her organization.
“Equity work is experiential,” she says. “Having that tough conversion, confronting bias—doing that through a simulation experience, we know that enhances learning.”
Pushing to Redesign the Profession
Arizona State University has several programs in place designed to train more—and a wider variety of—people to be teachers.
Over the past four years, more than 55 percent of incoming undergraduate students in teacher-prep programs at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College have transferred there from community colleges, and many of them are the first in their families to pursue higher education, racial minorities, or older, working adults. Students there pursuing teacher certification are eligible for state-supported full scholarships, so long as they commit to teaching in Arizona after graduation. And the university has moved its graduate-level teacher-prep programs to online formats, which may lead to recruiting future teachers from all over the country, not just the state.
But as ASU is wont to do, the university is thinking bigger. Education faculty and staff are advocating to fix what Gediman of the university’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College calls the “workforce design problem” of education.
The idea is that the country won’t have enough teachers—and won’t reach good academic outcomes for kids—until the profession is reimagined.
“People leave the job because the job is not possible to do well,” Gediman says. “At the end of the day, you have one 22-year-old in a room with 33 kids, who is supposed to teach them literacy, numeracy, handle kids on the autism spectrum, do classroom management, and some of these kids haven’t eaten in two days and three of them are homeless. Why are they leaving? It’s not a tenable job.”
The teachers college is home to an initiative called “Next Education Workforce,” which produces research, publishes resources and offers professional training intended to help schools and districts reshape teacher roles and learning environments. In early February, the initiative hosted a summit featuring superintendents, nonprofit leaders, policy experts and others interested in that goal.
It’s work that Gediman encourages other higher ed institutions to draw on, copy and even improve—especially as college leaders reflect on the heightened challenges teachers have faced in the last two years.
“I hope the pandemic has made what people in the field have long seen as systemic problems impossible to ignore,” Gediman says. “We could just move happily along and collect tuition dollars, have our enrollments go up and say we are done. Why don’t we try to fix something that is very broken?”