Lauren Reynolds started crying when she found out her university was shuttering the early childhood and elementary education program she was in. One of the last three students in the program, she will graduate in spring.
US teacher prep programs have reported shrinking enrollment numbers over at least the past decade. Experts are sounding the alarm: The educator profession – a critical cornerstone of American life – is in crisis.
“As more and more teachers retire, we need to have others fill that role and right now, the numbers are not looking good for us,” said Heather Sparks, director of Teacher Education at Oklahoma City University. “It’s heartbreaking to watch.”
The pandemic exacerbated the existing problems. Fears of catching Covid-19 and enforcing pandemic protocols are additions to the long list of challenges teachers face daily – from low pay and often little regard from their communities, to growing numbers of school shootings and legislative requirements about what and how to teach. Many educators have walked away in recent years and amid a dire shortage, few people want to fill their spots.
“I was driven almost because of that,” Reynolds, 29, said. “I want to do right by our kids.”
While some say it’s too early to know the specific impacts of the pandemic, Lynn Gangone, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) told CNN the numbers already show Covid-19 further dissuaded Americans from going into teaching. In fall 2020 and 2021, about 20% of institutions surveyed by AACTE reported the pandemic resulted in a decline of new undergraduate enrollment of at least 11%. Roughly 13% of institutions reported “significant” declines in the number of new graduate students. Regional state colleges and smaller private institutions – often found in rural communities – have seen the steepest declines.
“I don’t know how bad it’s going to have to get before we realize as a country that if we don’t invest in education … we will not have anyone in the classrooms to teach our children,” Gangone said.
What’s driving aspiring educators away
Priscilla, a northern California student teacher who did not want to use her full name for fear of the impact it may have on her career, has wanted to be a teacher since she was a teenager – but as she prepares for the test to get her credentials this spring, she worries about how long she’ll be able to cope with today’s demands of being in a classroom.
“There’s just so much more that’s being asked of teachers now,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘am I going to burn out in my first year?’ I hope not.”
Covid-19 compounded existing struggles and added new hurdles for aspiring educators. Some missed in-person classroom experiences that serve as a valuable tool to prepare them for their student-teaching placements and the workforce. Others are diving into their first classroom experience by trying to figure out how to keep their students engaged after many became accustomed to tuning out after hours on electronic screens. Priscilla said much of her first year as a student teacher has involved reviewing past material to get her class up to speed. All while worrying about contracting Covid-19.