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As a new school year begins West Virginia continues to struggle with certified teacher vacancies, but educational leaders are working to change that.
Caitlin Nelson knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I knew as a ninth grader that I wanted to be a special educator,” she said.
Now she’s living that reality as a K through 5 autism teacher in Raleigh County. But looking around at the changes the state has made in recent years to help people become educators, Nelson can’t help but wish her path had been laid out as smoothly.
“I would have loved to have the opportunity to not have to worry about debt and do what I love,” she said. “I also like the aspect of starting it in high school. If I would have had that opportunity, I would have achieved so much more years before I actually started achieving.”
Facing a teacher shortage that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia has begun implementing several changes to get more certified teachers into classrooms.
Earlier this year, House Bill 3035 created the Third Grade Success Act which will bring paraprofessionals into first grade classrooms this fall. A paraprofessional is a teaching-related position within a school responsible for concentrated assistance for students. Under the Third Grade Success Act, these educators will try to address reading and math skills early-on. Literacy and numeracy paraprofessionals will also be added to second and third grade classrooms in the coming years.
But, in a work pool spread so thin, the new paraprofessional positions have already started to draw existing teachers away from special education.
“It is really discouraging as a special education teacher to see people don’t really have the desire for special education,” Nelson said. ‘If I need a sub, I hardly ever get a sub unless I’m personally friends with them. It’s not something people just pick up on the hotline.”
Paraprofessionals will play an important role in the state’s educational future, but teachers continue to be the backbone of the system. And despite alternative pathways, many still get into teaching through a traditional university program.
Teresa Eagle, dean of the School of Education at Marshall University, said today’s recruitment problem is nothing new.
“Enrollment in educator preparation programs, which is what we call teacher ed, across the country has been down drastically, not just recently, but for the last 10 to 15 years,” she said.
Eagle said enrollment is starting to trend back up, but still not where they need to be. In the last few years, she has noticed a change in her students. They’re as passionate as ever, but more and more candidates are moving away from the profession.
In the past, Eagle said education was almost a family business, with children following their parents into the profession. These days, however, people are more likely to steer their children away from teaching due to the low pay as well as increasing difficulty and decreasing respect for the profession.
But the state is trying to make it easier than ever for those who took a detour from education to get certified and into a classroom. Passed in 2021, Senate Bill 14 created alternative pathways to allow people who already have a bachelor’s degree to receive a Professional Teaching Certificate.
“What I’m seeing is people in that program are people who knew they wanted to teach but they allowed parents, family, whatever, to guide them in a different direction for things other than the passion for teaching,” she said. “Now they’ve decided, that’s really what I wanted to do in the first place.”
Autumn Cyprès, dean of West Virginia University’s College of Applied Human Sciences, recognizes the pressing need for alternatives, but urges caution as well as respect for the teaching profession.
“There is an assumption made with the field of education,” Cyprès said. “Everybody went through school. So it’s really easy to jump and say, ‘Well, I went through a school so now I know what it means to be a teacher.’ You have no idea. Just because you went to school doesn’t mean that you understand or are going to be good at being a teacher.”
Cyprès said the demands being made of teachers are not new, but rather are now more formalized which allow programs like the one at WVU to better prepare teachers for the needs and demands of modern students.
“Education is a profession. It is one that is not paid enough in my view, but throwing more money at education isn’t going to be the answer,” she said. “Thinking more deeply about the nuances of education and where the purpose of school bleeds into very deep societal issues in our democracy, of equity, of health care, access to social supports, all of that feeds into the challenges that a teacher needs to face.”
Cyprès said part of the issue facing education is how to help someone understand their level of commitment to the profession. She believes one way is to talk to people who are starting to realize they might like education.
That’s exactly what Carla Warren, the officer of academic support and educator development for the West Virginia Department of Education, has been working to do. She is overseeing the launch of the state’s Grow Your Own initiative which gives students a fast-track into the education field through a combination of dual enrollment/Advanced Placement courses and an accelerated pathway.
“We are entering this first year of full implementation carrying about 177 students over from the pilot year with several students graduated,” Warren said. “So we’re pulling about 177 students forward, and we will begin building from there.”
On top of getting students to commit to the teaching profession early, Warren is taking advantage of the recent action of the U.S. Department of Labor to recognize teaching as a registered apprenticeship.
“When we started, West Virginia was the second state behind Tennessee to register the teaching occupation, as a registered apprenticeship,” she said. “It provides us the opportunity to access workforce dollars that we can use to reach that vision of removing those barriers of cost and providing those wraparound services for students.”
While Grow Your Own is an ambitious solution, it will take at least three years to pay out in any meaningful way. Warren said that in the short-term, the state is looking at paraprofessionals to fill the gaps.
“They’re traditionally individuals who wanted to become a teacher at some point, but life put a barrier up,” she said. “We found that that population, they’re already invested in school, they already know what a school system looks like. They want to be a part of that community. And so we feel like that really is a population that is ripe for the picking to create some very high-quality teachers.”
The potential payoff for Grow Your Own and the Third Grade Success Act is years away. But Dean Eagle renews her hope for the future of teaching each May when her students graduate.
“What I do every year when we graduate students is I watch the students cross the stage, and try to pick out the ones that I’m the proudest of, the ones that I know will go out and do a fabulous job and represent us well, be the critical changemakers in their schools and for their students,” she said. “So far, every year, I’ve been able to identify quite a few students like that. And so that’s where I get my positive outlook, that as long as we keep finding these people and putting them out there, then I know that it’s good for the future. It’s good for kids. The problem, of course, is we need more people like that.”
This story is part of the series, “Help Wanted: Understanding West Virginia’s Labor Force.”