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Jared Taillefer is the executive director of The Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in Newark.
The teacher shortage is reaching a breaking point in New Jersey. The problems causing shortages did not start last year, or even with COVID.
These have been issues that have existed for years, and many educators have tried to address them for just as long. And these issues have contributed to an alarming trend — a rapid decline in the number of New Jersey college students earning teaching degrees from more than 5,000 in 2011 to about 3,500 in 2020, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective research.
At this rate, there will not be enough new teachers available to keep up with future demand.
In response, Gov. Phil Murphy has designated a task force to propose a solution. This task force has submitted initial policy recommendations to the governor, some of which he has already included in his recent 2024 fiscal year budget proposal.
This is a daunting task for anyone, and for such a complex problem. For those of us in schools and classrooms every day, we have seen firsthand the policies and practices that have helped generate the teacher shortage problem, which results in student-teacher ratios that make it difficult — if not impossible — for young scholars to get the personalized attention they need to excel.
To start to address this persistent issue, there are immediate steps the task force can consider taking:
Create Easier Paths to Certification — The path to certification in New Jersey is difficult, often involving hours on the phone with long hold times and long waits to hear back from the New Jersey Department of Education. This process needs to be streamlined.
Although the N.J. State Board of Education adopted a program to ensure teachers applying for certification do not have to meet a minimum GPA requirement, the number of staff that can be hired through this program is limited. Once schools reach that cap, they are still unable to hire teachers that fall slightly short of the required GPA.
On top of that, teachers are required to have up to 30 credits in the specific subject field they are applying for. This means individuals who are qualified with years of teaching experience sometimes have to go back to school and take classes in specific subjects. This requirement is preventing people from making the switch to teaching later in their lives. These barriers rob our students of the privilege of having a teaching staff with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.
I applaud Governor Murphy for signing into law a bill that will eliminate the requirement for prospective teachers to take the Education Teacher Performance Assessment and for recently proposing stipends for student-teachers, a teacher apprenticeship program and waiving of teacher certification fees in the 2024 budget. This will help improve the process for certification, remove a financial burden, and streamline the addition of prospective teachers.
We should also look to our neighbors in New York, who offer alternative pathways and programs to certification, such as completing alternative workshops and courses.
Elevate Teacher Voice — Teacher influence and autonomy play a key role in the teacher shortage we’re facing. Research from the Economic Policy Institute has found that teachers who quit the profession report that they lacked influence over education policy or even what takes place in their classrooms.
State and community leaders need to listen to their constituents and should create avenues where teachers can respond to periodic surveys about new policies. Ensuring that teachers have a say on the policies that will impact what takes place in their classrooms will increase their overall sense of belonging. And by improving the climate of the workplace, we are improving the place where our students come to learn.
Equal Opportunities Despite Residency — In order to ensure we have enough teachers and ones of the highest quality, it may be time to look for teachers who don’t live in New Jersey. Currently, New Jersey has a strict residency requirement for state teachers. Though we should always encourage teachers to be from the community they work with, in some cases we may need to expand this pool to meet the needs of students, and in the process build our community further.
If teachers can see the wonderful benefits and education system that New Jersey has to offer, it may encourage them to also move here. This can also be accomplished by offering a bonus for teachers who live in the same city as their school.
The New Jersey Senate Education Committee had previously approved a bill eliminating the residency requirement, and it’s time for the Legislature to explore removing this unnecessary requirement at a time when we need as many teachers as possible.
The teacher shortage is reaching critical mass in our state. The continued lack of quality teachers is only exacerbating the impact on students from the COVID pandemic. Until we can provide real solutions to fix this problem, our students will continue to pay the price.
The task force has their work cut out for them, and thinking seriously about the solutions to this problem can help ensure the best education and best future possible for our children