It’s not easy becoming a teacher in Pennsylvania. I should know. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, I’ve been working on becoming one for the past three years.
I’ve seen fellow education majors come and go, some lured to other job prospects with more earning potential, others deterred by cynical political efforts to turn parents and communities against public school teachers.
And then there are the countless others who simply can’t afford the path to becoming a teacher. High tuition rates, lack of financial aid, and a 12-week unpaid student teaching requirement that makes it all but impossible to hold down even a part-time job.
Is it any wonder that fewer college students are choosing careers in education?
And we all know what that means. In Pennsylvania, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of new teachers. Pennsylvania issued nearly 14,000 fewer first-year teaching certificates in the 2021-22 school year than it did in 2012-13. That’s an unthinkable 73% decline in nearly a decade’s time.
Fortunately, there are a number of efforts under way in Harrisburg and across the state to address this crisis.
At the top of the list is House Bill 688, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County, which establishes a new scholarship program for aspiring educators.
The Teacher Pipeline Scholarship Program would provide annual scholarships of $8,000 to college students studying to become teachers. Not only will this make becoming a teacher more affordable, but it will lower student loan debt for Pennsylvania teachers in the long run.
House Bill 141, sponsored by Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Lehigh County, has a similar goal. It would establish a “Grow Your Own” teacher program in Pennsylvania. It is built on the idea that we need to do a better job of recruiting teachers from within the communities that need them most.
There are paraprofessionals, teacher aides, and other hardworking support staff in public schools across the state who would like to pursue careers in teaching but don’t have the money or the support network to go back to college. A “Grow Your Own” program will provide financial assistance and mentorship to those folks so that they can make the leap.
Both House Bill 688 and House Bill 141 were approved by the state House of Representatives in early May. I hope the state Senate will take up these bills and send them to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk.
I also hope the Legislature will adopt a measure — that already has bipartisan support — to pay student teachers in Pennsylvania a stipend while they complete their 12 weeks of required student teaching.
Many of my fellow students earn money while taking part in practicums or internships, but student teachers are required to serve full time at their placements for 12 weeks without earning a cent. I’ve heard from education major friends who struggle just to afford the commute, which can be an hour or more each day. Paying student teachers a modest stipend will remove a heavy financial burden on the way to becoming a teacher.
We also need to talk about paying our teachers more. Over time, earnings have not kept up with inflation, yet another reason fewer young people are entering the profession. We need to adopt policies that pay teachers and support staff in a way that is competitive with other industries and reflects the value that teachers provide to their students and communities. A number of other states led by governors from both parties have recently enacted higher starting salaries for teachers. Pennsylvania should do the same.
We also have a responsibility as a society to lift up our teachers and show them more respect. For years now, they have been educating students in tremendously difficult circumstances, navigating students’ academic needs as well as their mental and emotional health. The sort of rhetoric playing out in many school board elections this year is expressly designed to pit teachers against parents and communities. We need to reject these political efforts. They are not in the best interests of students, and they are only going to drive away more young people from careers in the classroom.
We’ve been talking about teacher shortages for years now in Pennsylvania. It’s no mystery what’s behind it. We know what needs to be done.
We need to respect our teachers, pay them fairly, and create affordable pathways for more talented, caring people like me to enter the profession and make a difference.
Marina Lagattuta is a student at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, majoring in secondary education, with a focus in English literature. She just completed her third year in the education program and will begin student teaching in the fall.