Retirements, enrollment changes push need for teachers

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Submitted Photo Brianna Thompson, a State University of New York at Fredonia student-teacher, is pictured in a classroom in March 2020. Several schools are hiring teachers due to retirements and changes to student enrollment.

As aging teachers retire and with changes to enrollment in education programs, schools in New York state are in need of teachers.

According to statistics from New York State United Teachers there were more than 51,000 teachers in 2018 over the age of 55 and almost 36,000 aged 51-54 enrolled in the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System. That means that of the 264,590 members of the NYSTRS, approximately one-third are able or will soon be able to retire.

Teacher education programs are also subject to a decrease in students. Since 2009, enrollment in these programs has decreased 53%.

Locally, Salamanca is one such school district hiring teachers. On the Western New York schools job board, there are 13 teacher or teacher assistant job openings listed in Salamanca.

Part of the issue is that Salamanca teachers are “at the end of generational retirement,” said Superintendent Robert Breidenstein.

In addition to teachers retiring along generational lines, Salamanca has also added new programs for its growing student population. As new programs related to science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics were added, the need for teacher for these classes has increased.

Also, the increase in student enrollment also lends itself to a need for more teachers. Breidenstein said since the 2012 school year, student enrollment has been up 300 students.

Breidenstein also noted the fact that college students are not entering teacher education programs nearly at the same level they used to. Although the shortage is not as pronounced in elementary level education, he has noticed a severe shortage in secondary education.

But why aren’t as many college students interested in becoming teachers?

Breidenstein says the political climate for teachers in New York may be one of those reasons. Instead of lawmakers in Albany addressing the broader, systemic issue of the under-funding of schools, Breidenstein said the legislature uses teachers as a “punching bag” and scapegoat for under-performing students.

“It’s hard to attract young people to the profession if leaders aren’t treating them well,” Breidenstein said.

What’s more, Breidenstein said the amount of money and time it takes to become a certified teacher is not worth it for young people when the state of the profession is where it’s at today.

Although some sources point to the intense standardization of New York public schools as a catalyst for a drop in teacher enrollment, Breidenstein disagrees.

“Since I started in education, state and federal government have always had a hand in what teachers are expected to teach,” Breidenstein said. “Teachers have latitude in how they teach as long as they are teaching what’s expected of them.”

It’s apparent, however, that the demands for accountability for teachers has increased, and while some teacher thrives, others fail. Although regulations and requirements have evolved over the years, the “pure constant,” Breidenstein said, is the students.

Breidenstein said once teachers are hired, it’s crucial to provide them with professional development so that they can learn and adapt with the best available methods for teaching to foster professional growth.

The good news for Salamanca is that the candidates for the openings in both elementary and secondary education are “surprisingly robust.”

Like the Salamanca district, Westfield is also on the hunt for teachers to fill open positions. Much of this is a result of veteran teachers retiring.

“It’s a result of retirement,” said Superintendent Michael Cipolla. “When I started a little over a year ago, one of the things I learned early on is that we have a very experienced staff in terms of years of service to Westfield, and that one of the goals of the district was to prepare for the future retirements.”

Along with veteran teachers retiring this school year, Cipolla anticipates additional retirements in the next few years. Cipolla also points to a decrease in the number of eligible teacher applicants as a catalyst for the teacher shortage.

“I think that in terms of eligible teachers or applicants that are out there in the field of education, we certainly do not see the number of applicants for teacher positions that we saw 10-plus years ago,” Cipolla said. “Certainly there’s been a decline.”

Cipolla points to the 2008 economic recession as the reason for a decline in the number of students entering teacher education programs.

“In terms of 2008-09, there were some financial difficulties at the state level that trended towards impacting school funding,” Cipolla said. “Schools during that time had to consider layoffs. That was a significant factor in the number of college students that were enrolled in teacher preparatory programs.”

As funding and budgets for schools were cut, college students were turned off from a career where they perceived layoffs as innate to the profession. In terms of remedying the teacher shortage, Cipolla believes partnering with local colleges is the way to go.

“We need to partner with area colleges and universities,” Cipolla said. “We really have to keep dialogue and communication open about not only opportunities … but thinking long term and taking a look at where the experience level of staff is, what type of future demand we might have and really start to work with colleges to let people know that opportunities will be available.”

Cipolla believes colleges and universities have succeeded in response to the recession-induced budget cuts for schools by promoting their programs and partnering with schools to increase enrollment.

As far as teachers being the scapegoat for lawmakers and leaders as opposed to the broader systemic budget and funding issues, Cipolla believes a celebration of the teaching profession will have profound effects going forward.

“It comes down to letting students who are pursuing a career in education know what the challenges are and what the benefits are that come with being a teacher,” he said. “At the same time, it’s important for lawmakers to understand the scope of the profession as well.”

The good news for Westfield is that it, too, is receiving a large number of applications.

“On a positive note, we’re starting to see an upswing in the number of applicants we have for positions,” Cipolla said. “We’re hiring for seven teacher positions, and we have collectively over 130 applicants. That’s refreshing. I think things are trending in the right direction.”

Dr. Anna Thibodeau, interim dean for the College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is intimately aware of the teacher shortage that looms over New York.

“There is a massive teacher shortage now,” Thibodeau said. “It’s ongoing. NYSUT estimates 180,000 unfilled positions. That’s a combination of retirements, people who have changed careers, and decrease in graduation of future teachers.”

Going back 10 years, external agencies, like the New York State Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education, were under the assumption that colleges were certifying too many teachers. As a result, additional requirements were applied to the teacher preparation programs.

“In New York state, teacher education students had to maintain a GPA of 3.0 throughout their program … (and) it became a mandate for students to have an ACT or SAT score above a certain criteria,” Thibodeau said. “These were ways that external agencies tried to narrow the pipeline.”

These requirements, Thibodeau said, coupled with things like small school districts consolidating opening up more positions, a 20-25% decrease in high school graduates, an increase in teacher retirements and an overall increase in K-12 school population all combine to contribute to the overall teacher shortage.

“All of this comes together to create a perfect storm,” Thibodeau said. “We are graduating a lot fewer teachers now than we were 10 years ago. Now is a really great time … for people to pursue their dreams of becoming a teacher.”

Throughout her 24-year career in the teacher education department at SUNY Fredonia, Thibodeau has noticed a substantial decrease in students enrolling in teacher education programs.

“Fifteen years ago, I was literally teaching classes with students sitting on the window sills because we had run out of desks,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau points to collaboration between school districts and universities as a way to address the teacher shortage.

“It is vitally important,” Thibodeau said. “One example is the absolutely dire shortages in teaching English as a Second Language. New York state, the school districts and the university work together to get appropriate (teacher education) students temporary certification so they can get in the schools. It’s important that all three parties are involved in that.

Another way to fix the teacher shortage, Thibodeau noted, is to look toward diversification. A way to diversify the pool of students is to re-think the requirements for teacher education programs.

“One of the biggest impacts an institution can make is to consciously diversify the pool of our students,” Thibodeau said. “Because of COVID, an awful lot of schools in NY have gone ACT and SAT-free. I think that’s a good thing. There are so many different ways to be smart and to be talented. That means within institutes of higher education, we’ve got to change our vision of who the perfect student is.”

Thibodeau’s bottom line is that those thinking about teaching are in the perfect climate to become teachers.

“People who want to teach have got an opportunity right about now,” Thibodeau said. “There’s going to be all types of opportunities popping up because of the shortage.”


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