Check out some stories from the fall 2021 semester that remind us why we do this work!
Buzz about Colorado’s severe teacher shortage has been in the news for years. But it’s hard to picture exactly what it means or what it looks like in practice.
In conjunction with the Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) AmeriCorps expansion this fall, the organization is partnering with Serve Colorado and the Colorado Education Institute (CEI) to examine AmeriCorps as a pipeline into teaching. How do we reduce barriers so that more people pursue careers in education – including teaching? How do we utilize AmeriCorps as a stepping stone? The joint research has already resulted in meaningful data and identified opportunities to bolster pathways to teaching and remove significant barriers.
To get a sense of the magnitude of Colorado’s teacher shortage, picture this: 235 classrooms across the state, full of students, with no teacher at the front of the room. 235 empty teacher desks. Nearly 900 more classrooms led by individuals other than traditional teachers. And for the teachers still in classrooms, pressure to lead larger classrooms of students who are struggling with a new reality that they often don’t understand.
This is the data from the 2020-2021 school year: 235 teaching positions went unfilled and 893 were filled through a shortage mechanism such as long-term substitutes, retired educators, alternative licensure program candidates and emergency authorization candidates.1 Obviously, students were not left in empty classrooms to fend for themselves. Rather, class sizes were forced to grow, further straining resources like attention and support that are crucial for students, especially after the trauma of the pandemic.
The state also struggles to both recruit and develop the teachers it needs in undergraduate settings. Undergraduate teacher programs in Colorado produce only 40 percent of the teachers that Colorado needs every year.2 The teacher shortage is something that impacts every Coloradan, as the Colorado Department of Education found that the annual burden of teacher attrition on taxpayer dollars ranges between $21 and $61 million, with much of that money spent on recruitment efforts for out-of-state teaching candidates.3
The three districts interviewed in CYC and CEI’s joint research were Greeley-Evans School District 6, Mesa County Valley School District 51, and Cañon City School District. While each district faces unique challenges, common themes such as the struggle to hire teachers of color surfaced. Colorado’s current teacher workforce is 87 percent white. While suggested solutions varied by district, all three districts expressed interest in recruiting individuals already in schools to pursue teaching licensure, including paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and AmeriCorps members.
AmeriCorps members and their experiences
In many ways, AmeriCorps members serving with CYC are an important puzzle piece to the teacher shortage dilemma. In fact, 79% of AmeriCorps members serving with CYC reported that they are interested in pursuing a career in education. Meanwhile, 33 percent of members surveyed are a race/ethnicity other than white, compared to the current state workforce’s percentage of 13 percent. These members are passionate about impacting the lives of students. Over and over, respondents shared thoughts like this:
“There are not many males like me who work with younger kids…Boys see there’s someone who looks like them and they can accomplish what they want one day.” –CYC AmeriCorps member
However, AmeriCorps members face a number of obstacles to entering the teaching profession at the conclusion of their service. Paramount among these obstacles are financial concerns, both around low wages for some teaching positions and around the expenses of returning to school to gain the knowledge and licensure necessary to enter teaching. One member stated, “My husband has had some complications from COVID, and I’m no longer going to be able to seek a career in education because I need to support us financially.” Another member asked, “I already have student loans from undergrad and graduate school to figure out…can I afford to go back?”
Also rampant was confusion and/or misinformation about Colorado’s different pathways to teacher licensure. While Colorado offers several pathways to teaching for individuals who lack a teaching degree, members expressed confusion over these alternative pathways and concern at how they might be perceived.
“I am not sure how valid an alternative pathway is,” said one member. “I am not sure what the standards for schools are to get hired.”
What all these responses point to is a group of passionate individuals who have expressed an overwhelming interest in teaching (and subsequently alleviating the Colorado teacher shortage), alongside school districts that are willing to hire them. How can we partner to remove barriers that are slowing the progress of this ready-made pipeline?
Initial research has already identified several opportunities that may be worthwhile in this pursuit, and this is only the beginning. Firstly, we can provide support and resources to AmeriCorps members who are interested in a teaching pathway but unsure what steps they need to take to pursue that pathway. Members reported strong relationships with CYC staff and/or site supervisors who could act as a reliable source for this information. Clarity about licensure pathways will make a big difference, according to CYC Executive Director Mary Zanotti: “With nearly 200 AmeriCorps members serving in schools across Colorado, we see a unique opportunity to support the teacher pipeline. There are already some great initiatives taking place with organizations like TEACH Colorado and PEBC, and Colorado Youth for a Change can help increase awareness and fill the pipeline for teacher apprenticeship opportunities, alternative licensure, and so much more.“
Secondly, offering AmeriCorps members opportunities to connect with teachers, especially teachers early in their careers, would empower members to navigate working in a school setting. The final recommendation from the research was to provide clear information about teacher pay and earning prospects for AmeriCorps members, and how factors such as location, years of experience, and credentials can influence pay.
There is a wealth of untapped potential amongst AmeriCorps members who strive to work in the education sector but lack resources or knowledge of how to do so. AmeriCorps members are already solving complex problems within their service, which makes them a viable group to help solve another complex issue: the desperate need for teachers in Colorado.
Thank you to the numerous funders who help make this work possible!