With Pressure on Teachers at a Boiling Point, California Needs New Pathways to the Profession

Liv Ames/EdSource

Kindergarten teacher Jana Herrera of Booksin Elementary in San Jose discusses a story written by Casandra Lopez Monsivais.

Bay Area teacher Michele Lamons-Raiford – who has been in the profession for 20 years – said it was the first year she had considered what life outside the classroom might be like. Simmering for years, the pressures on K-12 educators now threaten to push unprecedented numbers out of the classroom.

For many, the pandemic was the deciding factor: Already faced with demands that often seemed impossible, teachers were struggling to keep students engaged in remote learning. And the return to in-person teaching has brought a whole new set of challenges, as teachers struggle to support students through the dramatic academic and social emotional effects of Covid.

As veteran Sweetwater teacher Louise Williamson said, “I was thrilled to return to my classroom this fall and see my students at Hilltop High School in person. About three weeks into the school year, I felt like a failure.

Even before the pandemic, the shortage of teachers had reached crisis proportions. California was among the hardest hit states, with 80% of districts experiencing shortages. Since the pandemic, the problem has only gotten worse.

The impact of the teacher shortage on students is profound and direct, especially in this time of recovery. When a resource teacher at her school left in the middle of the year, Azusa’s teacher, Angela Wright, left her 5th and 6th grade class to a substitute and stepped in to replace her colleague. With the departure of a teacher, two classes of students lost a trusted adult to guide them. It’s no surprise, then, that student achievement and engagement are headed in the wrong direction: school absences are on the rise; high school graduation rates are declining; enrollment in community and four-year colleges declined significantly.

In addition to overall shortages, California also has a long way to go to have a workforce of educators that reflects our state’s ethno-racial and linguistic diversity. Despite evidence that a diverse workforce of educators positively impacts student engagement, learning, and other outcomes for all students, California’s teaching workforce remains overwhelmingly white. Although only 22% of California students identify as non-Hispanic white, about 61% of California public school teachers do.

District leaders are trying to address teacher shortages and diversity crises through several strategies, including offering short-term bonuses, easing certification rules, revamping professional development, and rolling out administrators in the classroom. For long-term solutions, we need to attract more of our young people into the teaching profession and give them the training and support they need to succeed.

Fortunately, Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed investments in Golden State Pathways do just that – building and strengthening on-ramps that kick-start preparing young people for careers and post-secondary work in K-12 education.

Unlike traditional high school, where the college-prep curriculum is confined to the classroom and some students pursue tech career opportunities separately, pathways bring it all together. Rigorous academics are integrated with technical career studies, student supports, and workplace learning opportunities – like apprenticeships and other hands-on learning opportunities – that enable local leaders to take advantage of diverse resources of their communities and prepare students to work as early childhood educators and paraprofessionals immediately after high school graduation.

Already several Californian districts are showing the way. At the Teaching Career Academy at Hollywood Senior High School in Los Angeles, students prepare for an education through partnerships with local elementary schools and others that expose them to opportunities in the field. They leave the academy ready for immediate employment or post-secondary work. And through a dual enrollment program with a community college, students can apply for an associate teaching degree, which allows them to earn college credit while gaining hands-on experience teaching in a daycare setting.

By enabling local educational agencies to develop new pathways, Golden State Pathways funds can be used to build on these linked programs and support the development of new programs in communities that desperately need them. Building this pathway within a community that is in dire need of well-prepared and diverse educators creates a mechanism for local leaders to amplify the strengths within their local community and leverage them to enhance opportunities for their students.

A diverse and well-prepared teaching workforce, tightly connected to the community, is essential to the success of young people and California in general. The pandemic has exacerbated teacher shortages that need to be addressed, and it has also shed light on the need to find new ways to engage and empower our young people. With thoughtful implementation to reach the communities and students who need it most, Golden State Pathways promises to help us do both.

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Sarah Lilis is executive director of Teach Plus California, a nonprofit organization that trains and empowers teachers to take leadership on key policy and practice issues.

Anne Stanon is president of the Linked Learning Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for high-quality college and career preparation through pathways.

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