Several years ago, we were struggling to find teachers, especially in hard-to-fill positions such as math, science, and special education. We had a building full of bright students who we were doing a great job of preparing for countless professions, but teaching was not one of them. It turns out that educators are not the best recruiters. In fact, teachers often discourage students from the very career to which they have devoted their own lives.
Teachers often represent the first real profession that students encounter. When you ask students in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up, many of them will tell you they want to be a teacher, because it’s the first profession they’ve seen in action. Years go by, and those same students move on to different careers because teachers do such a great job of promoting other careers.
Every day I saw potential teachers in our classrooms, and I knew with a few changes we could create a wonderful teaching force with the students in our school.
Drawing Students to Education
The reality is that we have hundreds of students sitting in our classrooms shadowing possible career models every day. First, we needed to ensure that we developed an environment that drew students to education-we needed to address the culture of our school. We asked ourselves the hard question: If students were looking at our teachers, would they see people they would like to become after college? We learned to turn our teacher talk from discouraging education as a career to promoting education as a career. Having teachers share positive attitudes toward their profession gives our students, and future teachers, something to aspire to. Having those same teachers invite students to become educators is extremely powerful.
Career of Relationships
Teaching is a career of relationships. Positive relationships with students and with other teachers are the key to success and happiness for educators, especially given the demands of accountability, scarce resources, and rapidly changing expectations.
In creating a culture that would draw students to teaching and provide our teachers with the opportunity to develop relationships with each other and with students, we looked for ways to bring students and teachers together outside of traditional classroom schedules.
For instance, we have a Power Hour that gives students the opportunity to see how teachers personalize learning, and also gives our students the opportunity to help other students. Flexible time allows our teachers and students to interact together in a more informal way, showing students the fun side of teaching. But we also look beyond the regular school day.
During the first semester, our teachers and students participate in a variety of staff vs. student activities, such as staff vs. student volleyball, soccer, basketball, flag football, kickball, Ultimate Frisbee, and dodgeball. During the second semester we do some of these same activities; however, this time we have the teams divided into students and staff on the east side of campus vs. students and staff on the west side of campus. Staff members also have the opportunity to put on a skit during homecoming, participate in a talent show, and take part in other school events. Students and teachers enjoy the opportunity to come together, and these activities create a special bond between them. Plus, providing time for students and teachers to interact outside the classroom has enabled us to show our students that the education profession is more than the subject being taught. Being an educator means positively impacting young people and instilling in them a lifelong love of learning.
Our student clubs, teams, and activities celebrate teachers by taking a day to do something nice for all the teachers and support staff on campus. For instance, the criminal justice club provides coffee and donuts to teachers, the National Honor Society provides breakfast, the student council sponsors the staff holiday party, and different groups personally bring apples, notes, or handcrafted pottery to teachers and staff members. This strengthens that bond between students and teachers, and it also creates a positive environment for teachers while showing students that teachers are appreciated.
Teacher Preparation Program
While we were working on our school culture, we developed a Teacher Preparation program. This vocational program culminates with students being certified as paraprofessionals. While in the program, the students receive instruction on curriculum, instruction, literacy, and instructional technology, and they are paired with a teacher on campus, with whom they work several days a week.
Students are given the opportunity to teach a class, and many serve as tutors for their teachers during our Power Hour student-empowerment time in the middle of the day. Students also serve as reading buddies at the elementary school before school and are available to provide support to the local middle school. These opportunities offer the true hands-on experience of supporting and helping students, and it gets them hooked on wanting to make a difference in students’ lives. The paraprofessional certification gives them the opportunity to work in a school upon graduation from high school.
Students in the Teacher Preparation program are encouraged to participate in the on-campus Early College Program in which they can earn their Associate of Arts degree without leaving our campus. This support for our very diverse, economically disadvantaged school community has students completing up to two years of college while they are in high school, putting them well on the way to completing their education to become a teacher. One such student was the valedictorian, who completed her Associate of Arts degree and returned two years later to teach math in our school.
We also hired the salutatorian of another graduating class to teach chemistry. We hired a former football star to work with our special education population, and one of our dance students returned to be a dance teacher. We have seen dozens of students return to our school to begin their teaching careers since we started this program, and we have provided other schools in our district with enthusiastic educators to serve their schools.
The teacher shortage is a reality. Without providing the right opportunities and environment, students will not leave high school with an eye on becoming a teacher. School leaders must seize the opportunity to make education an attractive option for students to choose. It will not only lead students to consider teaching as a career, it will make their school a better place in which to work and learn.
Jayne Ellspermann is the immediate past president of NASSP and former principal of West Port High School, Ocala, FL.