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Emerald Collier always wanted to be a teacher, just like her mother.
But when she took a step toward that career by becoming a teaching assistant in a Milwaukee school while pursuing her education degree, the reality of being in the classroom proved difficult.
“I was struggling, floundering and crying every day, not knowing how to manage the classroom,” Collier said.
Discouraged, she faced the decision of whether to stick with it or walk away from education altogether.
Collier wouldn’t have been alone if she chose the latter. A survey released earlier this year by the National Education Association found 55% of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned, a figure the organization deemed “alarming.” That was up from 37% of those surveyed less than a year prior.
At the onset of the 2021-‘22 school year, 30,000 public school teachers resigned across the country, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Attrition among teachers combined with a dwindling pipeline of education majors have created severe shortages nationally and in Milwaukee in particular.
From 2011 to 2019, the number of graduates earning degrees in education from southeastern Wisconsin colleges and universities decreased 13%, according to recent research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. When interviewed for the WPF study, deans of the education programs at those institutions attributed that trend to perceptions of increasing demands and pressure on education professionals, a perceived decrease in public respect for the profession, increasing politicization and de-professionalization of the field, lingering effects of the 2008 recession and a lack of competitive pay compared to other fields.
The crisis predates the pandemic but has accelerated over the past two years, forcing the sector to put a focus simultaneously on retention of existing educators and recruitment of more to the profession.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm on this,” said Krysta DeBoer, executive director of the Center for Urban Teaching. “Where we are today has been fast-forwarded, and the problem has been made worse by the pandemic, but there have been warning signs over the past decade that where we are today has been coming down the pipe.”
City Forward Collective, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that emerged out of the 2019 merger of Schools That Can Milwaukee and Partners Advancing Values in Education, has put its focus on teacher recruitment and retention in recent years. A full – and fully prepared – workforce is key to the organization achieving its goal of adding at least 5,000 high-quality school seats in the city by 2025, said Patricia Hoben, president and executive director of City Forward Collective.
Hoben, who founded and led the Carmen Schools of Science and Technology charter school network from 2007 until 2019, said she observed the narrowing of the candidate pool as a school leader. Teacher openings in the early years at Carmen received 15 to 20 applications; by the end of her time at the then well-established network, she was seeing about three applications per position.
“We can’t possibly do enough to try to address it,” Hoben said of the teacher shortage. “That’s the reality we face right now.”[caption id="attachment_548982" align="alignright" width="300"] Jomoni Haynes, now the dean of behavior and culture at St. Marcus Lutheran School’s Harambee campus, received support through the Center for Urban Teaching as a new teacher.[/caption]
Now at City Forward Collective, Hoben said the city needs to grow its pool of teachers of color. Research shows the link between academic gains and students of color learning from teachers who look like them.
One of the organization’s strategies is to provide grants for paraprofessionals to continue their education at area colleges so that they can receive their licensure to become teachers in the city.
In 2020, City Forward Collective was awarded $500,00 in funding from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to support the training of 140 new public school teachers, but it later scaled those plans back to 90 teachers due to disruptions from the pandemic.
The organization also initiated a “Why They Teach” campaign, which highlights the stories of Milwaukee teachers and their different paths to the profession, and it partners with Teach for America on recruitment efforts that focus not only on new teachers, but also on drawing back experienced teachers who have stepped away from the profession or are coming from other cities.
The Center for Urban Teaching launched in 2001 within Wisconsin Lutheran College with the goal of improving educational outcomes for students in Milwaukee’s central city. In 2013, it became an independent nonprofit organization to grow its capacity to recruit prospective teachers and prepare them to teach specifically in an urban setting. Currently, 375 of its program alumni teach in the city of Milwaukee.
When searching for candidates, potential talent comes from “anywhere and everywhere,” said DeBoer, though the search for teacher candidates largely begins during their freshman year of college. In addition to local universities and colleges, CfUT reaches out to organizations that serve college students, such as All-In Milwaukee, to find prospective educators.
The pitch often begins with the need and opportunity for teachers in the community.
“The reality is even our college students who are attending local universities sometimes do not understand the landscape of education in Milwaukee and what the need is,” DeBoer said. “… You don’t need to go to a different country across the world to serve students in need. They’re literally in our backyard and there’s an opportunity right here.”
CfUT provides guided immersion tours that highlight good teaching in urban schools across the country, with the goal of “demystifying the magic of teaching,” DeBoer said. Novices often observe well-behaved or poorly behaved classrooms and misattribute that behavior to the students being “good” or “bad,” she said.
“The reality is, no, what you just observed was a great teacher and a struggling teacher,” DeBoer said, adding that the immersion tour guide helps explain the techniques teachers use to keep students engaged and on task.
The organization also offers intensive, six-week summer school training programs, where teacher candidates have the opportunity to put theory into practice with coaching from CfUT. Beyond lesson planning and delivery, DeBoer said, it’s necessary for teacher candidates to get practice setting up procedures and routines, building classroom culture, communicating with parents and working with other adults.
“And it’s a short-term experience. If you fall flat on your face, after six weeks you get back up and you can take a break and try again. You’re not being thrown in for the first time ever and expected to make it through a full school year,” she said.
To support their retention, teachers who complete the CfUT’s program receive ongoing coaching and professional development through the organization during their first few years in the field. DeBoer said having someone who isn’t a coworker or boss to share struggles with as a new teacher is important.
During Jomoni Haynes’ first year as a teacher, she spoke multiple times a week with a coach through CfUT.
“That looked like her coming into my classroom and observing. After she would observe me teaching, we would meet one-on-one and talk about how I was feeling with the lesson, things I wanted to change, and some things she noticed. And because she knew me, she knew where I could give a little more or re-examine how to do something,” said Haynes, who now is the dean of behavior and culture at St. Marcus Lutheran School’s Harambee neighborhood campus.
Emerald Collier attributes CfUT coaching to her staying in the field. While she struggled with classroom management as a teacher assistant, she heard about the organization from a colleague and enrolled in its summer school program.
“Through that process I realized, ‘Oh, maybe I can teach. I just didn’t know how,’” she said.
When she returned to her school the following fall, Collier said, she “killed it.”
“My students grew so much, and I realized I do have a place here,” she said.
Today, Collier is a seventh- and eighth-grade lead teacher at HOPE Christian Schools’ Fidelis campus and provides coaching for a fellow teacher. CfUT reports that 86% of its alumni remain teachers for four or more years. Nationally, 50% of teachers leave the field within their first five years; 30% leave after the first year.
While she ultimately stayed the course, Collier has seen friends leave the profession.
She said feeling a lack of support in their jobs combined with non-competitive wages and the added responsibilities that have come with the teacher shortage have all contributed to burnout among her peers.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel overwhelmed sometimes,” she said. “But I think that’s the difference: It’s feeling like you are supported and have the tools but also the people you need to be successful.”
While overall education degree completions in the region are declining, data indicates a growing share of college students of color are earning education degrees – a trend that could contribute to a more diverse workforce in the coming years, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum report.
Both Haynes and Collier said they were among the only Black women in their education classes and field placements when they trained to become educators. That reality has reinforced their commitment to remaining in the central city.
“I knew when I was working as a TA in the inner city, in the ‘urban’ setting, when I looked at my students, I was looking at myself and that drove me even more to stay,” Collier said.
“They are the future leaders and decision-makers in our city,” she added. “And if I’m going to live in this city, I need to make sure I’m preparing those future leaders and decision-makers to then fill my role or (other) roles they’ll have in this city.”
DeBoer said there are potential solutions that could have an immediate impact on the teacher shortage crisis. Establishing funding parity across the city’s three main publicly funded sectors – Milwaukee Public Schools, charter and private-choice – would create an even playing field for recruitment, she said. Under current funding formulas, charter and choice schools receive less in per-pupil funding than the public school district. Many charter and choice school leaders say this limits their ability to offer competitive wages and benefits.
“The sustainability of high-performing charter and private schools really depends on how well they’re going to be able to keep teachers,” Hoben said. “Often you see the years of experience (of teachers) in private and charter schools is much less than in traditional districts for those reasons.”
DeBoer said the state could also remove entry barriers by relaxing some of its licensure processes, including requiring teacher candidates to complete the Foundations for Reading Test.
Overall, more collaboration is needed all along the teacher-preparation pipeline, she said.
“The problem right now is quite honestly simply too big for any one organization, sector or entity to put their arms around,” she said. “Nobody is going to be the knight in shining armor on this one. Everyone needs to work together.”