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Cooperation Helping Address Va. Teacher Shortage

Jane Bray

This article originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot and is reprinted with permission.  

SOME SAY mountains cannot be moved, but the commonwealth has done just that.

Achieving solidarity among educators, politicians, policymakers, higher education institutions and leaders from across Virginia, the effort to combat the teacher shortage in our classrooms has been nothing short of truly astonishing.

On June 20, the Virginia Board of Education gave the final seal of approval for 53 four-year undergraduate degree programs in teacher education at 15 institutions of higher education across the state. This signifies a dramatic change in policy from the state’s previous requirement that teachers earn four-or-five-year degrees in areas such as liberal arts, general studies or interdisciplinary studies. Most higher education institutions delivered their teacher preparation programs through a five-year model.

This movement began with Executive Directive 14 issued by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the end of his term and was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam. Educators were tasked with finding ways to fill teacher vacancies in classrooms across the state, following the recommendations of two state advisory panels. The directive was also supported by legislators, who quickly moved to change Virginia code, paving the way for new programs to be developed.

Virginia needs to fill more than 1,000 teaching vacancies in classrooms. It was time to act. The commonwealth could not afford to wait. Any delay would harm our children, some of whom were being taught by individuals not prepared for the challenges of teaching.

What followed was an incredible sense of seriousness and willingness to work together toward a common goal. Colleges and universities across Virginia moved forward at a pace rarely witnessed in higher education to prepare programs that needed to be approved at multiple levels.

For the public institutions, the response from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia was striking. SCHEV became the champion for the cause and almost singlehandedly developed an aggressive timeline for approvals, which created 53 new undergraduate programs ready for students this fall. All other approving bodies assisted with the process, and faculty at both public and private institutions worked feverishly to meet the serious need to fill teacher vacancies.

Beginning this fall, institutions will be offering four-year degrees in special education, elementary education and early childhood education for students entering the profession of teaching.

The new degrees require increased and enhanced clinical experiences so that students will have more opportunities to practice what they have learned in college classrooms under the guidance and supervision of veteran teachers. Courses were developed with strong input from practicing teachers and administrators, ensuring that future teachers will be prepared for the rewards as well as the challenges of working in our schools.

This unprecedented collective action provides multiple economic benefits as well. First, filling vacancies with highly qualified teachers helps school divisions eliminate the expensive process of searching to fill open positions. Future teachers will accrue less student loan debt with a four-year degree as opposed to the many students who completed the five-year degree program.

Most important, stronger teachers filling classroom vacancies will lead to stronger schools and stronger communities. This bodes well for new and existing businesses, which need a well-educated workforce.

Yet there exists a looming mountain left to climb. Schools continue to face the challenge of retaining teachers in the classrooms. Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni reports that 50% of teachers leave the profession after four years. Even if we fill all classroom vacancies in

Virginia, our collective efforts need to shift to retaining those teachers. We may not recreate the previous tradition of teachers spending their entire careers in the classroom. But we must focus on ways to retain teachers for more than 10 years to meet the needs of our communities, schools and children.

A strong focus on compensation for teachers is already evident in several states. This is not the only factor for teacher retention that needs to be considered, but it certainly is an important one, along with helping teachers identify ways to face the stressors and challenges of classrooms today.

Virginia has mountains in its beautiful state, and one large one has just been summited. Those who participated in this monumental work should be commended for eliminating a significant barrier to filling classroom vacancies.

Jane S. Bray is dean of the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies at Old Dominion University. 

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Jane S. Bray

Dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and 2016-2017 chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.