Deshler Middle School student-teacher intern Sara Quinn hears talk of teacher shortages around the state, and is hoping to do her part to lessen the problem.
With an undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Alabama, the Tuscumbia resident saw quickly it wasn’t the field for her.
She started teaching preschool and said she found her calling. She began a master’s program to obtain her teaching certification from the University of West Alabama. She’ll graduate in May, and is hoping for a teaching job, even if it means traveling.
“I’d love to teach around here, but to get a job I’d travel a reasonable distance,” she said. “I’m hopeful about my chances for employment.”
Hers is the attitude educators in districts across the state wish they saw more often — a genuine passion for teaching.
Lawmakers and education policy officials are concerned about the growing threat of a teacher shortage in the near future. Some places, particularly rural county systems, already are experiencing a shortage.
According to Alabama Department of Education data, the current teacher shortages are primarily in math and science.
For example, Montgomery County currently reports a math teacher shortage of five, with a projected future shortage of 10. And city systems aren’t immune either, as Auburn has a current shortage of six and the same shortage projected in the near future.
The reasons for the shortage are multi-fold. As Alabama gains more jobs after years of recession, other higher-paying fields are competing for young workers, especially those students with math and science backgrounds.
With the completion of the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, an exodus of veteran teachers is looming. To help combat a teacher shortage, there are legislative bills in the works for a 3 percent and 4 percent teacher raise. Another bill would offer some teachers higher pay rates if they elect not to enter the teacher tenure system.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice said the teacher shortage is contextual. By numbers alone, the teacher pool is fine, he said. The problem comes, he said, with attracting teachers to rural schools.
According to a 2015 statewide data report, Alabama is short 86 high school math teachers with a shortage of 93 expected next year.
The State Department of Education is feeling the pressure, and is in the process of conducting surveys with K-12 schools and higher education institutions to help map out incentives to attract future teachers, especially to the areas of math, science and special education.
The State board of education, in a move to ease the threat of teacher shortages, approved an adjunct instructor policy that allows schools to hire teachers who don’t have state certification, but have experience in specific areas. Those individuals will mostly be hired in the work skills areas as well as the arts.
The compromise with adjunct instructors is schools don’t get the classroom management knowledge and the understanding of the methods of teaching that the traditional undergraduate education student brings, according to Debra Gosha, coordinator of educator recruitment and placement for the State Department of Education.
“Our chief concern is seeing good numbers in our undergraduate education programs across the state,” she said. “Those students with that vast knowledge of education have the tools they need to be effective in our classrooms.”
As for students enrolled in colleges of education, the numbers have dropped with a 19 percent statewide decrease in students completing education degrees.
Quinn doesn’t find that surprising, saying many students get into education and are deterred by the changes in laws and the amount of time that must be devoted to the profession.
“Changes in education, like Common Core and, of course, the pay, really affect people’s attitudes,” she said. “I was reluctant at first, too, with the Common Core standards, especially in math. It’s a completely different way of teaching it. But I’ve also seen that this new approach offers more teaching methods, and therefore appeals to more learning styles.
“A true teacher cares about what’s best for students,” Quinn said. “It isn’t the career for everyone, and it certainly isn’t just the seven hours in the classroom.”
The University of Alabama’s College of Education reports a decline in enrollment over the past three years of more than 10 percent.
It’s a concern for UA education officials because what was once a draw — the security of teaching — has given way to severe budget constraints, few raises and increases in benefit costs.
At the University of North Alabama, the picture isn’t so grim.
Offsetting a reported undergraduate enrollment decline of about 2 percent during the past three years, the graduate teacher preparation programs are up more than 12 percent in that same time period, said Donna Lefort, dean of the college of education.
“We attribute much of the growth in our graduate enrollments to our partnerships with area school systems,” she said, referring to programs offering special incentives for existing teachers to receive additional degrees.
Lefort said she expects to see even more of an impact on education programs across the state when higher educational standards go into effect.
“We’re not anticipating too much of an impact because our admission criteria is already high,” she said.
Lefort said the Shoals is blessed. “We’re not experiencing anything close to the shortages other areas are.”
She attributes that to leadership in communities that support education, particularly with tax dollars.
As for turning out an adequate supply of teachers, the numbers tell the story best.
State data shows no teacher shortages in Shoals systems, or in nearby Franklin or Lawrence counties.
Still, Lefort doesn’t rest easy. To the contrary, she said department officials are continually looking for incentives to draw in students.
“Our students are employable and ... many walk the graduation stage with contracts in hand,” she said. “Still, we have to keep working to promote that STEM certification for our secondary math and science teachers because it makes them even more employable.
“Yes, we’re competing with other market areas that pay more,” she said. “That’s why we have to assure that our graduates know they’re highly sought after, especially in the math and science areas.”
Gosha said it defies logic as to why more education students statewide don’t seek the STEM areas as specialties since that’s where the jobs are.
“From the data I’ve collected, there are some cases where universities have graduated just one or two students in the math or science area,” she said.
While she understands the crunch to get teachers in rural schools, she said there’s also a responsibility on those schools to provide attractive facilities and programs for teachers to come into.
“We’d love to offer scholarships and financial incentives for teachers to go into those rural districts because those children deserve good teachers, too,” she said. “But those schools also share in the responsibility of being a good place to teach. That’s always the goal — good schools, good teachers.”