NYSUT coming up with creative ways to recruit and retain educators

A national teacher shortage is looming on the horizon, due in part to a large number of educators being on the verge of retirement, and a significant drop in recent years of students enrolling in teacher training programs.

“We're certainly seeing shortages throughout the state,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, which is working to find solutions. “We're seeing it across the board.”

DiBrango, who taught in the Rochester area for more than 20 years before being elected to her NYSUT position last April, said the 600,000-member union has data showing a 49 percent drop in college students taking up teaching since 2009, with 32 percent of teachers eligible for retirement. 

“It's a pretty serious problem,” agreed Canandaigua City School District Superintendent Jamie Farr. “It depends on the positions. If we're looking for an elementary teacher, over the summer, we definitely get a pool of applicants, but it's dwindling.”

He said speciality subjects like chemistry, physics or foreign languages are particularly impacted.

DiBrango, who taught middle school throughout her career, beginning at Canandaigua, said when she worked at the Palmyra-Macedon Central School District, Pal-Mac was always searching for family and consumer science teachers, as well as English as a Second Language instructors.

Farr said Canandaigua is short five or six substitute teachers in each of its buildings daily, making it difficult to cover some classes. He said finding long-term substitutes to fill in for maternity leaves, surgeries or unexpected absences is very difficult.

“We're also calling retired teachers and begging them to come back," Farr said. "Fortunately, there are a number of retired teachers that are willing to do that, but that will only last so long.”

He said Canandaigua is also fortunate in that a lot of its teachers are willing to accept $20 to $25 stipends to give up their free planning period to cover a class and do their planning sessions outside of school.

The district has also conducted hiring fairs in conjunction with Finger Lakes Community College and is in its second year of partnering with the college to try to interest more students to pursue careers in education, while at the same time providing substitute teaching jobs that can be used by the students to fulfill their observation hours toward their degree requirements.

“This started last year,” Farr said. “It was a new idea to help with the substitute problem. This year, it's taking off and we're honing in on how to make it a little more efficient.”

According to figures obtained from the New York State Education Department, nearly one third of teachers in Ontario, Wayne and Monroe counties are at or close to retirement age.

Carl Korn, NYSUT's chief press officer, said teachers with 30 years of experience are eligible to retire and begin collecting a pension at age 55, although many work longer.

In Ontario County, 21.4 percent of its 1,604 teachers were ages 49-56 in 2016-17, based on SED figures. Another 11.2 percent were ages 57-64 and 1 percent older than 64.

The figures are similar in Wayne and Monroe counties where 21.1 percent of Wayne's 1,382 teachers were ages 49-56 in 2017, 9.6 percent ages 57-64, and 0.7 percent older than 64; while 20.7 percent of Monroe County's 8,963 teachers in 2016-17 were ages 49-56, 10.6 percent ages 57-64, and 1.1 percent older than 64.

“Looking at it another way, with nearly 12,000 teachers in the region, there are roundly 4,000 age 49 or older in 2016-17,” Korn said. “This predicted outflow of teachers in the next, let's say five to eight years, coupled with a 49 percent drop in enrollment in teacher training programs, are the reasons for worry about a looming teacher shortage.”

So, what happened?

A huge factor, according to DiBrango, is the Annual Professional Performance Review that she says set up a testing regimen that demoralized teachers and tied student performance on standardized tests into the annual evaluations of teachers and principals throughout the state.

“No other profession has to be evaluated,” DiBrango said. “The number-one concern for teachers is making sure students receive a well-rounded education and getting the best education while they're in our care.”

The law, intended to create more rigorous and accurate assessments of educators, was passed in 2010 and modified in 2015. Instead of being rated as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, there is a scale based on several factors that rate teachers and principals as ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective.

DiBrango said the federal government no longer links mandated federal student tests to teacher evaluations and NYSUT is working to have the state follow suit with nine other states that have done away with the practice.

“We're trying to get the APPR fixed now,” she said, noting if the union is successful in changing that, more people may be attracted to the teaching profession — which she said has been attacked with rhetoric for several years and undermined.

Farr said there were a lot of changes made and the way they were rolled out, coupled with tight budget years and teacher layoffs, led to reduced morale.

He said some of the teacher evaluation process and how it became politicized was received in a negative light.

“I think there's been this feeling of negativity within education that led our future teachers to decide not to enter the field,” Farr said. “I think it's rebounding. I just think the field of education is a great occupation and really would encourage people to give it a look because I think it's a great career. You really have an opportunity to shape the future.”

DiBrango said there also needs to be a focus on retention; new teachers need to be nurtured and supported to remind them why they got into the profession.

“Let them know it's the hardest job in the world, but it's the most rewarding job in the world,” she said. “You can make the world a better place by teaching kids to be better citizens.”

Other innovative approaches to promoting teaching includes a residency program started in the North Country, where State University at Plattsburgh students are placed in local schools for a two-year residency, working side by side with supervising “attending” teachers.

DiBrango said SUNY Brockport will pilot forums with higher education faculty hosting teleconference “campus conversations” to talk about careers in teaching.

Another suggestion is a buddy program in which fifth-graders can read to younger students, perhaps fostering a love of teaching or helping teachers identify potential future educators.

“We all know kids that would make a great teacher,” said DiBrango. “We need to be on the look out and start tapping them on the shoulder. There's no better recruiter.”

DiBrango, who began teaching in 1995 in the Canandaigua City School District, spent most of her career in the Pittsford Central School District, where she also served three terms as president of the Pittsford Teachers Association.