Melissa Welker, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, answers a question from a student in her business class on Tuesday in Terre Haute. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Melissa Welker, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, answers a question from a student in her business class on Tuesday in Terre Haute. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Melissa Welker is in her fourth year of teaching business at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute.

The 41-year-old, who spent many years coaching gymnastics and operated her own gymnastics business for 7 1/2 years, eventually decided to make a career change and become a public school teacher.

“I love it,” she said.

Teaching was something she always wanted to pursue, and coaching gymnastics lent itself to a smooth transition in many ways, including classroom management, she said.

“I like the process of teaching and watching kids learn. I love being able to be part of that,” she said. After running a business, she also liked the more family-friendly hours.

“I went for a career specialist permit,” an alternative teaching licensure path, she said.

The renewable two-year credential is for someone who wants to change careers and become a teacher in a specific subject at the secondary level. The option she chose called for 5,000 hours of work experience related to the content area.

At a time when many educators are leaving the profession, and fewer are entering, Welker’s story may offer some grounds for optimism as state and national education leaders sound alarms about the worsening teacher shortage.

State and national shortage

The teacher shortage continues to plague Indiana’s schools, with the Indiana Department of Education showing 1,773 openings statewide as of Aug. 9 and 1,675 as of Aug. 17. In mid-July, there were 2,300 open teaching positions.

Those numbers include public, charter and private schools.

“It’s a challenge, one we’ve not had to deal with at this level in a long time,” said Robert Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

Districts are turning to creative staffing and maximizing use of existing staff. For example, a regular education teacher may provide some limited assistance in the special education realm; the number of students in a classroom may increase. There may be reduced curriculum offerings at the secondary level, Taylor said.

In some cases, school districts are collaborating to share some staff. Rural communities may have a much more difficult time attracting/ retaining teaching and support staff than suburban schools, which may have the challenge of adequate staffing for growing enrollments.

On a positive note, “There are still a number of quality young men and women entering the field of education, but not the numbers we need to fill the ever-growing number of vacancies we have due to retirements or career change,” Taylor said.

The Legislature has done a “nice job” in providing alternative licensing programs enabling those interested in education, or those wanting to change careers, to become teachers. “A lot of strides have been made,” Taylor said. On Tuesday, Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, told CBS News that in too many cases across the country, “There is a shortage of teachers ... It was true before the pandemic, but it’s worse now.”

“If we’re serious about addressing the teacher shortage issue, we must address the teacher respect issue,” Cardona stated. “What that means is providing competitive salaries, that means improving working conditions for teachers across the country and listening [to teachers] ... Working conditions matter, as do competitive salaries.”

He gave the example of teachers with master’s degrees who have to drive Uber on weekends to make ends meet. “That’s unacceptable in the United States,” Cardona said. Meanwhile, a National Education Association poll conducted earlier this year found 55% of teachers said they would leave education sooner than planned, up from 37% last August.

‘Sounding the alarm’

The teacher shortage “is something that we have been sounding the alarm on for quite some time,” said Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Research shows, in Indiana and nationally, the biggest reason individuals don’t enter, or stay in the profession, is teacher compensation.

The average teacher salary for Indiana teachers was about $53,000 during the 2020-21 school year, which is behind neighboring states, according to the National Education Association data. Indiana ranked 41st in teacher pay among the states.

The second biggest factor relates to professional respect, Gambill said. Teachers are well-educated and trained professionals trying to do their job, yet “folks from outside the profession are coming in and wanting to change the rules on anything from what should be in the curriculum and what ways should you go about teaching,” Gambill said.

Schools also are struggling to have enough education support professionals, including teacher assistants, who are especially important as class sizes get bigger. They can work with individuals or smaller groups of students on specific assignments such as in reading or math. A shortage of teachers and paraprofessionals can really “put stressors on the system,” Gambill said. That, in turn, can cause educators to leave the profession because they are concerned about not being able to meet the needs of their students.

The Legislature has continued to pass different licensure pathways to enter the profession that, in his opinion, “signal they don’t value the degrees in education that folks have traditionally gone through,” Gambill said.

The success of those programs may depend on the resources a district has to assist the teachers pursuing those nontraditional pathways.

In some cases, it falls to current teachers to help train that new teacher in such areas as child development, lesson planning and classroom management. But the current staff already have a full-time job teaching their own students.

Again, it puts added stress on the system. “What we see far too often, is that those who come in through the pathways don’t stay for an extended period of time,” Gambill said.

What’s needed, he said, “is for lawmakers to step forward and begin saying, ‘We have to declare now we want to make real change in what’s happening.’” That means additional investment in education in Indiana. Next year’s legislative session is a budget-writing year. “We’re sitting on a surplus, and it is time to invest in the students and the children of Indiana and their future and the future of our state,” Gambill said.

“They have to recognize that to ensure our students have a world-class education, that doesn’t come for free,” Gambill said. Legislators “are going to have to create a profession folks want to be part of.”

In 2021, the Legislature provided an additional $789.2 million to school corporations in tuition support for the current biennium, according to the Indiana School Boards Association. It also required schools to put 45% of that state funding toward teacher pay and set minimum starting salaries at $40,000.

Schools that can’t meet the minimum threshold must submit a report to IDOE explaining the reasons.

Efforts to address the shortage

Holly Lawson, IDOE spokeswoman, said the state has been taking steps to address the shortage. “There are 10 license pathways and 55 educator preparation programs across the state. That number has expanded dramatically over the years,” she said. “It’s creating more affordable, accessible opportunities for people to enter the classroom.”

Some address the need for more special education teachers, including I-SEAL, which streamlines the required coursework for teachers to earn full special education licensure and provides financial support for them to complete the requirements.

Another, the alternative route special education license, allows teachers to remain in the classroom while completing the requirements of their license.

New options for special education licensure were needed because Indiana no longer grants emergency permits for special education teachers, a change necessary to comply with federal law.

Lawson also pointed to the Attract, Prepare, Retain Grant, which will support local initiatives to attract and retain educators in schools across Indiana.

In addition, the state has an online job board that provides real time data on job openings statewide; districts can post openings at no charge. “We’re hearing from a lot of folks that many schools are getting more applications than they would have normally,” Lawson said.

Districts work to address challenges

But for many districts, finding qualified teachers to fill vacancies remains a challenge, including Southwest Parke Community School Corp. The high school seems to be most impacted, said superintendent Phil Harrison.

“We have several teachers in the high school who are employed via the allowable emergency permit process. Our emergency permits cover business, music, math, family/consumer sciences, and PE/health,” he said in an email. “While these teachers hold a bachelor’s degree (many in their content area), they have no formal ‘teacher’ training. They know their content, but are truly learning to teach while doing the work. It’s a tough assignment.”

The district also has a shortage of bus drivers and custodians, Harrison said. “The bus driver shortage is very difficult for us.” State leaders concur that staffing shortages exist in other support positions.

Jeanine Corson, chief human resources officer with New Albany-Floyd County School Corp., said that, “Clearly, with a fewer number of people going into teaching as a profession, I don’t know a school district that couldn’t be somewhat impacted.”

But the district has been pro-active in efforts to fill its vacancies. It offers a higher starting teacher pay than many other districts, $46,000.

The district also had concerns about having enough special education teachers, but it “jumped ahead of the game” and promoted the state’s new licensing pathways for special education teachers, Corson said.

“We did a lot of work to promote the I-SEAL program,” she said. The district has several teachers pursuing alternative special education licensure.

While the district has been able to manage its staffing needs, as of Aug. 18, it still had open positions for a physics teacher and a fifth-grade position.

Improved salaries would help

Welker, the Woodrow Wilson business teacher, said she’s always had a passion for kids and teaching. She believes the shortage “has a lot to do with pay.” Many teachers have to work second jobs to pay their bills, including college debt. While starting teachers in the Vigo County School Corp. now make $40,000, “It’s tough when you are trying to raise a family or buy a house,” she said. To earn extra money, she provides tumbling lessons and sells energy bites. Still, Welker encourages others who might want a change of profession to consider teaching using alternative licensing options.

“I believe it is a way to give back to our community,” she said. Students need positive role models in their lives — people who can teach, encourage and inspire them.

“Teachers often complain about the pay, but we love what we do,” Welker said. “We don’t want to give up on the kids that we invest in — we just want fair compensation for what we do.”
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