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In My Opinion

Teacher shortage is real


Can we grow our own resources?


Residents and parents of children in the Maple Valley school system can feel proud of the district’s portrayal in a new documentary film produced by the Public Broadcasting System’s Detroit affiliate and Regional Education Labs.

Maple Valley is one of three rural areas highlighted in the compelling piece, “Heartbeat of the Community: Recruiting and Retaining Teachers in Rural School.” I recently attended a special viewing of the film followed by a panel discussion at Maple Valley High School. The documentary is now available on YouTube for everyone to view, and I’d highly recommend it (searchable by its title).

Maple Valley’s call to address the growing crisis of finding and retaining teachers – and especially the high-profile attention Maple Valley Superintendent Katherine Bertolini is providing the subject – is, to me, the mark of enlightened leadership.

Unfortunately, the light those leaders would like to see at the end of the tunnel may be a rambling locomotive that could run over every rural school district in this state.

In a report released by the state’s two largest teacher unions and a consortium of urban districts (it’s not just a rural problem), teacher shortages are cited as the leading factor in an increase of uncertified long-term substitutes being used to fill a growing number of positions. According to the U.S Department of Education, enrollment in Michigan’s teacher prep programs has dropped by 70 percent in the past eight years. Some 16,000 fewer college students were majoring in K-12 education degree programs in the 2016-17 school year than in 2008-09, putting more pressure on schools already trying to find teachers to replace retirees and those looking for the exits.

In a recent interview with Bridge Magazine, Michael Rice, Michigan’s new state school superintendent who came to the job from Kalamazoo Aug. 1, criticized the growing use of substitute teachers in public schools.

“The most recent estimate of long-term substitute teachers running classrooms in public schools is about 2,500, which is a problem,” Rice said. “The goal ought not be to drop these numbers to zero, but 2,500 is not vaguely where we ought to be.”

According to the Bridge Magazine piece, a rising number of substitutes are staffing classrooms with as little as 60 college credits in education and no formal training. And school district officials all over the state say they have no one in the wings to fill a growing number of positions as teachers retire or leave the occupation altogether. So what can we do to solve this growing problem?

“The solution is to improve the job,” Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, said. “Some approaches, such as raising teacher salaries or reducing class sizes, are working, but it costs a lot of money. Others are giving teachers a bigger role in how classrooms are run.”

Some school districts in Michigan are responding to those financial challenges by “growing their own,” allowing high school students to work in elementary classrooms similar to a student teaching role. The programs allow a high school student to explore a teaching career, similar to a traditional co-op or job-training program without committing time or expense.

“I think this would be a wonderful experience,” said Maple Valley math teacher Matt Powers. “Even if students decide they do not want to go into teaching, it saves them from going to college for a profession they will not enjoy. We’ve see so much success with career and technical programs over the years when high school students are given the chance to work in a field of interest, and – with teacher shortages – why not use high school students who might want to pursue a teaching career?

Programs like this won’t solve the immediate teacher shortage crisis, but they may pay big dividends in coming years by retaining good teachers with passion for the profession.

“Good teachers bring out the best in students,” the late television journalist Charles Kuralt said. “Ask anyone, ‘Is there a teacher who made a difference in your life?’ and I’m sure each person will identify several teachers and coaches who impacted them during their early school years.”

A segment in the PBS documentary shows two teens from Elk Rapids working with students in classrooms as teacher aides, demonstrating proof of Kuralt’s observation. In the role of student teachers, the two are building relationships with fellow students and their mentor teacher, which could be the draw for these students to return to their home community after college.

“It takes three years before teachers become comfortable with their jobs, but often they end up leaving before then,” Bertolini said. “Almost 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first four years.”

But if students had a chance to work in the classroom during high school, Bertolini said, they might get a better understanding of making a career of it.

“The teacher shortage is real and growing,” especially in rural school districts, Bertolini said. In recent years, researchers and journalists who cover education have called attention to the growing shortage of K-12 teachers. They cite a variety of reasons for the insufficiency, such as salaries, classroom size and excessive legislative oversight. But one thing we’ve not focused on is allowing high school students, who might be interested in teaching, to come into the classroom and work with students via on-the-job training.

“When you study great teachers, you will learn much more from their caring and hard work than from their style,” said psychiatrist William Glasser, who applied his theories to broader social issues, such as education. In his book, Choice Theory, Glasser said, “Choosing the life you want to live and staying close to the people you need” will make a difference in how you succeed.

By getting students in the classroom, watching how teachers teach and the impact they have on students, could be just what high school students need to choose teaching as their career. Plus, it would give teachers the advantage of having additional help in the classrooms to work one-on-one with students who need more attention.

On-the-job classroom teacher training is not the sole solution to today’s teacher shortage, of course. Bertolini also discussed Maple Valley’s Teacher Foundation, another development program that is in the planning stages with cooperation from the Barry Community Foundation. Being explored are initiatives that could attract and retain teachers to rural districts such as Maple Valley by offering assistance with paying back student loans or helping with other expenses in order for a teacher to live, work and enjoy the district where they’ve chosen to invest their talents.

The documentary was an eye-opener. It’s too bad more parents and business leaders didn't attend the special event because the problems educators face are real and will impact our communities for many years.

We only get one chance to prepare our youth for the world after school. We must do a better job or pay the consequences.


Fred Jacobs, CEO,

J-Ad Graphics Inc.


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