LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — The state of Arkansas is in the middle of a teacher shortage. It is a problem that is likely to get worse because of a dramatic decline in the number of people who want to make a career out of education.
According to the Arkansas Department of Education, 8,255 students were enrolled in teacher training programs in state colleges during the 2008-09 school year. By the 2016-17 school year, that number had declined to 3,659, a drop of nearly 56 percent.
“I wish I could say that it was a part of an up-and-down cycle,” said Cathy Koehler, President of the Arkansas Education Association, “but it’s not.”
While fewer people are entering the field, a large number are preparing to leave it. ADE reports that 31 percent of teachers get out of teaching within five years. Koehler added that more than a third of the public-school teachers in the state have reached their retirement age, bringing Arkansas to the precipice of a classroom crisis.
Nekeethia Jordan, a junior at Central High School, said she already feels the impact of the shortage.
Yeah, we have to be pulling desks from other classes, just to sit down, there’s so many people in that class,” she claimed. “And sometimes it’s hard to learn like that, because there’s so many people talking, and you don’t know, really, what’s going on, because there’s so many people around.”
In some classes where overcrowding is not an issue, stability is. “Some teachers, you can go in class, you just have a sub there for the whole year,” Jordan mentioned, “and you’re just, like, ‘where’s the teacher?’ There’s no teacher to fill their place.”
“Research is very clear,” Koehler added, “that people who go through high education teacher education programs are more likely to remain in the profession, to remain in the classroom, and to have job satisfaction.”
Jordan may become part of the solution. She is in the Teacher Cadet program. She and other Little Rock School District students spend part of their day learning from professors at UA Little Rock and then intern from experienced teachers. Jordan wants to become a middle school math teacher, so she assists Alvin Turner with his sixth-grade class.
“When I came in,” Jordan recalled, “they thought I was a new student! And I was like, ‘no, I’m in high school. I’m trying to become a teacher.’ Then the finally got, like, the concept that I’m actually older than them, and actually really listened to me. And I was excited because I’d hear, ‘can you come help me? Can you come help me?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, I can help you!’”
ADE recently launched the Teach Arkansas campaign to recruit and retain teachers. Increasing the size of the Teacher Cadet program is part of that plan. Jordan is currently one of a few hundred students statewide who participate. They all earn college credit for each semester they spend in the program.
“You’ll get more college hours, and then you might have to pay less money to go to college,” Jordan said. “And it’s actually amazing to be having the opportunities I have.”
ADE’s plan also includes changing the licensing procedure for teachers who left and want to return to teaching and offering more job fairs for college students and adults who want to consider a new field.
Koehler believes the plan is a step in the right direction. She would also like to see more monetary incentives for prospective teachers.
“We need to work on loan forgiveness for the areas of highest need,” she said as an example, “because we know that if you’re coming out, and you’re starting at $33,000 a year, a $100,000 debt load from college, loan debt, does not make teaching an enticing job choice.”
She listed special education, math, and technology as the subjects in most dire need of teachers.
"Because let’s be real: people who have math, science, and technology degrees have options, and there hasn’t been the stability in teaching that there was in the past,” she said.
“That’s one of the … reasons I wanted to become a math teacher,” Jordan mentioned, “because there’s not a whole bunch of math teachers.”
Jordan said she does not have any teachers in her family, but was inspired by her sixth-grade math teacher at Horace Mann Middle School.
“You know, going from elementary to middle school, you’re just like, whoa, there’s new stuff that you have to learn,” she said. “But I ended up picking it up, and she kept helping me, and I would stay after school doing math. I just really got into the concept of, ‘I’m going to go home and do math, just for the fun of it.’ And that really inspired me, because she always used to be there for me, and I could ask her anything.”
Jordan said that none of her friends want to be teachers. She noted that many would rather become hair stylists or go into medicine.
“Probably because it’s (so) much work,” being a teacher, she explained, “and they don’t get paid as much as, like, medical (professionals) or doctors do.
“But being a teacher is not for the money, just to change kids’ life because some kids might come from families that have been having issues. But if you come to me, I can always cheer you up, or inspire you to be somebody like me, or somebody else.”
Koehler said that stagnant wages and a reduction in school districts’ contributions to health care and retirement plans are largely to blame for reduced interest in teaching. Giving passionate prospective teachers such as Jordan in front of impressionable students could slowly change young people’s perspective of teaching.
“I, from the time [I was little], and many young people, start out thinking, in Kindergarten or first grade, ‘I want to be like Miss So-and-so,’ or, ‘I want to be like Mr. So-and-so,’” Koehler mentioned. “Somewhere, we’re losing that love of teaching.”
ADE will hold its next job fair will on Saturday, March 3 at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock.