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Teacher shortages felt at college level

University of Wisconsin-River Falls students Mari Meuwissen (right), Amber Raddatz (left) and Madeline Miller practice a science experiment. Dr. Joel Donna (kneeling) said this type of experiment would be used in elementary classrooms to learn about molecules. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert)1 / 2
University of Wisconsin-River Falls students Raven Hernandez (left) and Ellie Prax don't worry about lack of compensation for teachers. Rather, they want to become teachers to make a difference in the lives of children. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert)2 / 2

RIVER FALLS -- Raven Hernandez didn't know she wanted to become a school teacher until she was a junior in high school.

Ellie Prax grew up in a family of educators and knew her chosen career when she was quite young.

Hernandez and Prax are students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Hernandez is studying physics, while Prax is in elementary education.

The chance to teach children and guide a generation was all the convincing they needed to explore education as a career.

"I really enjoy watching kids see them understand something that, five minutes ago they didn't understand, seeing that light bulb go off is what I enjoy the most," Prax said.

Hernandez, a junior, hails from Illinois, while Prax, a senior, comes Minnesota. When Act 10 was enacted and teacher shortages increased, they weren't necessarily paying attention to the coverage.

"There's lots of jobs in Wisconsin, but nobody wants to teach in Wisconsin because all the stuff that has happened," Hernandez said. "I don't know lots of specifics on it, but I'm aware that it's confusing and not exactly the best place to be working right now."

These are the daily struggles that students and professors such as Dr. Michael Harris and Dr. Joel Donna deal with in their classes, preparing students to become the highest quality teachers they can, while also facing harsh realities.

"These students are knowledgeable about Act 10, I'm certain, but their passion is to be teachers," Harris said.

Harris, the dean of education at UWRF, said when Act 10 was established, the law "devalued teaching as a profession" and also caused "some deterrence" in the education field.

When Act 10 was enacted in 2011, Harris said enrollment in the undergraduate education programs had "a dip," but overall the graduate education programs haven't bounced back.

"There's been over a 50 percent decrease in students in that program," Harris said.

Donna, a professor in the education department at UWRF, said it's difficult for students to justify incurring a potentially large amount of debt while seeking an education graduate degree, while working for low pay.

"They're looking at the level of debt they're taking in and what their salary is going to be and, you know, you're taking on quite a bit of debt for a profession, as noble as it is, and how badly they want to work with children, and bless them for that," Donna said.

In a survey of teachers who've left the profession because of Act 10 or other reasons, 67 percent said increased salaries would bring them back, Donna said.

When she envisions her future career, Hernandez said money won't be the reason for her happiness.

"I don't think anyone goes into teaching knowing they're going to make a lot of money," Hernandez said. "I'm not going to teach because I want to be a millionaire."

Prax agreed with Hernandez, questioning why people would be deterred from a career if that's what they love to do.

"I'm not looking to make money," Prax said. "I was looking to do something I love. Why would you waste your time?"

As far as issues with teacher shortages, Donna said "none of these issues are new."

"We've had teacher shortages in the past. Similar calls have been to open up the pipeline, reduce the quote-un-quote barriers to entry," Donna said. "We certainly feel teacher licensure is a safeguard for Wisconsin students...We want to make sure we're going to have high quality, well-prepared teachers who are going to make a difference in the long run."

Across the nation

The nation is feeling the effects of teacher shortages as well. Donna said from 2008-2009 there were 719,081 teachers in the United States. In 2013-2014, the number dropped to 464,250.

The Learning Policy Institution (LPI) conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education around the country.

It found that Wisconsin is below the United States salary average of $36,141 at $33,546. The LPI also found that 10.5 percent of teachers leave the profession in Wisconsin; 7.7 percent reportedly do so nation-wide.

Programs like STEMTeach at UWRF have been created to encourage people in other fields who want to become teachers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. It's an intensive graduate level program that lasts from summer to spring. This May will be the second year it's been available.

While STEMTeach is relatively new, Shared Inquiry Communities has been around since 2010. The program is a learning method in the Master of Science in Education program, where students develop teaching and leadership skills.

Fewer and fewer teachers are enrolling in the program.

Harris said before Act 10, they had 140 students in the program and a number of cohorts across the state. Now, they are down to one cohort and 12 students.

The best way to bring younger generations into the education field, according to Harris, is to establish that education is important again.

"The major thing is for society to value education again," Harris said. "Supporting teachers once they're teaching to retain those teachers, that's the only way I see the solution to this."

Although there are teacher shortages, Hernandez and Prax don't want to rule out teaching careers in Wisconsin.

"When they ask that question in class I say, wherever I can get a job....I don't want to settle for something if I can get a higher paying job in Minnesota," Prax said. "Then I probably wouldn't take the Wisconsin one, but if I could get paid in Wisconsin then I'd stay."

The best advice Hernandez can give to younger generations interested in the teaching profession is working with an age group you're interested in teaching.

"I've worked with middle school and high schoolers at camps and youth groups," Hernandez said. "Just from that, not even teaching them physics, I knew that I wanted to work with that age group."

Prax said she understands that teacher shortages are difficult and that politics are part of the profession. The passion for teaching, Prax said, would never deter her from teaching.

"As long as you, at the end of the day, love teaching and do what you love, the rest of the stuff wouldn't matter."

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a series about teacher shortages in Wisconsin.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.