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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Bell: Higher ed as solution to Indiana’s teacher shortage, diversifying staff

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The K-12 teacher shortage isn’t a new issue for Indiana’s public schools. This problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, causing educators, like other frontline workers, to work through extreme fatigue. As a result, we’re seeing teachers burnt out and leaving the profession for good. While much of the focus during the pandemic has been centered on students navigating this “new normal” of hybrid classroom models, Indiana’s teachers are just as susceptible to strains on mental health caused by disruptions in our everyday lives. Our educators, now, more than ever, are going above and beyond for their students.

As we’re in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2-6, we’re reminded of everything our teachers pour into our students. Unfortunately, though, teachers are feeling the pinch of these shortages, especially in areas such as special education and substitute teachers. According to a study by Indiana State University, nearly 97% of Indiana schools are reporting a teacher shortage. What’s more, a national EdWeek Research Center survey published in October 2021 stated that over 75% of school leaders struggled to find substitute teachers this past year and the number of special education teachers in Indiana dropped around 4% from 2014 to 2021. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult for schools to not only hire new teachers but retain the ones who are currently employed.

Another layer to this growing issue is that our country’s public school teachers are much less racially diverse than their students. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that fewer than 1 in 10 teachers were either Black, Hispanic or Asian American. This is in part due to fewer and fewer Black students entering into the field of teaching after graduation. According to a study from the Institute of Education Sciences, just 5% of Black students who entered education programs went into teaching in Indiana classrooms.

Not only do students benefit from consistency in having teachers remain in the school system, but they also greatly benefit from having diverse teachers as role models. Indiana is far behind in that department as more than 95% of our state’s teachers are white. Every one of our students, many who are minorities (32%), are much more likely to pursue a career in education if they are shown that individuals who are of a minority are just as successful in a classroom. Fortunately, Indianapolis Public Schools is taking steps to make change and one step was the creation of an initiative called Proving What’s Possible that’s aimed to recruit and retain more diverse, high-quality teachers for IPS classrooms.

There are many pieces to solving the complex problem of teacher shortages and diversifying schools’ teachers. Schools across the state have employees who are just steps away from earning their teaching credentials or full-time teachers who are ready to move up the career ladder, but don’t know where to begin or don’t believe they have the time or financial resources to make it happen. WGU Indiana’s competency-based learning model is one solution as it’s positioned to meet adult learners where they are so they can complete courses on their own time and at their own pace.

The online university offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees that lead to a teaching license, master’s degrees for current teachers to add to their licensure and other master’s degree programs focused on educational development. On top of this, it’s an affordable route, compared to many other colleges, for those that have other financial obligations. And WGU’s teacher college is in the top 1% for granting degrees for Black and Hispanic/Latinx educators at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Higher education is certainly a piece in helping alleviate our state’s teacher shortages. Equally as important is awareness and collaboration between K-12 schools, higher education institutions, Indiana policymakers and regional leaders to actively lift our teachers and schools back up. Teacher Appreciation Week is one week; we need ongoing support for our valued educators and prospective educators, year-round.

Alison Bell is chancellor of WGU Indiana, a nonprofit, online university offering 60+ degrees in the four colleges of business, teaching, I.T. and health/nursing. Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience and is the chancellor. WGU Indiana is the first-ever state model within Western Governors University and prides itself on being the nation’s first accredited competency-based university as well as having a diverse student body across the entire state of Indiana.

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