As leaders of the House and Senate education committees, Rep. Robert Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse most likely have held greater sway on Indiana schools than any other Hoosiers in the past decade. Now they want to know why the state has a teacher shortage.
Behning, an Indianapolis education lobbyist, and Kruse, an Auburn auctioneer, called for a study committee to examine why fewer people are seeking teaching positions and what should be done about it. The number of newly licensed teachers declined by 18 percent between 2009 and 2013. As of Thursday, Fort Wayne Community School had 60 vacancies to fill, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
If Jenny Sanders could speak to the study committee, she would ask lawmakers to adopt more realistic requirements for students and better compensation for teachers. She retired from Fort Wayne Community Schools last year at 59 – in part out of frustration with changes in education.
"The emotional toll that is happening with people in the classroom – I didn’t experience it personally, but I certainly witnessed it," said Sanders, who taught art at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center. "I hope with all my heart things turn around in the next couple of years and that good teachers can flourish. I hope the handcuffs will come off and they have a little more autonomy in the classroom."
Sanders has good reason to hope for change: Two of her six children are public school teachers, as well as two daughters-in-law.
She said she wouldn’t discourage anyone from entering the profession because of the personal satisfaction it can bring, but she said pay had become a factor since step increases – pay raises awarded for each year of experience – were eliminated. She said her son, a nine-year classroom veteran, earns about $1,000 more than a first-year teacher.
"You send a real message with salaries," Sanders said. "The pay is not commensurate with the work."
If Heather Schilling could speak to the study committee, she would ask them to listen to educators.
"For the last several years, (teachers) have not been treated as the professionals they are," said the director of Manchester University’s teacher education program. "We would never question doctors the way we are questioning teachers. Teachers haven’t been allowed to have control of their own profession. For us to pretend we know what is happening in their classrooms is naive."
Schilling is busy fielding calls from school districts trying to hire this summer, but all her graduates looking for teaching jobs have already found them.
"It’s not like people haven’t been warning about the shortage coming," she said. "You talk to people who have left teaching, and they’ve left not because they no longer love children or no longer have a passion for teaching – they’ve left because they are tired of fighting the battles. They are not allowed to teach the way they know they should be teaching."
If Emma Nellans could speak to the study committee, the Manchester education major would ask lawmakers to increase pay and focus on students.
"It’s moved to a much bigger focus on passing the tests so that the schools look good and passing the tests so that the state looks good," she said. "I think we need to put more emphasis on our students’ achievements in every area – their achievements in theater, in the arts – not just the academic areas."
A senior in Manchester’s accelerated degree program, Nellans comes from a family of educators and always wanted to be a teacher.
Her family members didn’t discourage her, but Nellans said she heard warnings from others, including some of her former teachers at Argos Community Schools in Marshall County.
"They’ve cautioned me. The classroom environment is not exactly sunny weather now," she said, noting that one close friend changed majors because of upheaval in education policy.
It might grow worse. Indiana lawmakers could use the teacher shortage to waive educator-licensing requirements. The Kansas State Board of Education voted last week to ease a shortage there by allowing selected districts, including schools in Kansas City, Kansas, to hire unlicensed teachers. The districts were designated by legislation inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
If Indiana lawmakers follow ALEC and Kansas, they will drive more teachers like Sanders into retirement and more students like Nellans to other professions.
Sound advice is available from experienced educators and students passionate about a teaching career. Behning, Kruse and other lawmakers should listen.