Capital News Service

Support staffs eyed as way to ease teacher shortages

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(This story was updated at 10:23 a.m. to correct a title.)

School staff shortages are on the rise, according to Wendy Zdeb, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

“When I graduated from college in the early ‘90s, there were hours that you’d wait in line at teacher job fairs, just hoping someone would look at your resume,” said Zdeb.

“Nowadays, I have colleagues at these events who have maybe one or two people stopping by the table,” Zdeb said. 

According to the December 2021 Michigan Teacher Shortage Study by Education Policy Innovation Collaboration, the number of reported vacant teaching positions has increased from 498 to 875 since 2012. This number is assumed to be underreported. 

To combat these shortages, the state Department of Education is offering “Grow Your Own” grants to support the development of future Michigan educators.

The first grant is for support staff and offers up to $10,000 per employee for teacher preparation coursework and program fees. The second grant of $2,500 is for schools to fund preparation and recruitment activities for future educators. 

“These programs are critical to getting the number of employees back up to what they are supposed to be,” said Zdeb.

Zdeb said it truly is an overall employee shortage in schools, not just a teacher shortage.

She said that teacher shortages have been coming to the forefront over the last five years, maybe even a little bit longer.

“This is a great opportunity to not only bring back (older) concepts, but to expand those ideas to current school employees,” said Zdeb. Paraprofessionals or other staff who have an associate degree or some college experience can become certified teachers.

Thomas Morgan, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, said the grants are an important ingredient in tackling the educator shortage, but they aren’t the final solution. The MEA is the state’s largest union of school staff.

The Grow Your Own grant program is one important part of assistance to current school employees, as they already know the students and how their school runs, according to Morgan. 

“There are really three core things that need to be done in order to solve this issue,” Morgan said. “We need to increase compensation for school employees, both veteran staff and new educators.” 

“We also need politicians to start listening to the voices of educators before making policy decisions, and we must start respecting teachers and school support staff for the professionals they are,” he said. “Too often, politicians get together to decide important school policies, and yet they won’t involve actual front line educators in the process.”

In an interview with Bridge Michigan, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said the number of students enrolled in Michigan’s teacher prep programs plummeted from around 23,000 to approximately 9,000 in just a few years.

Morgan said fewer people are pursuing careers in education for a multitude of reasons.

“When (students) see what current educators are going through, between getting paid too little and the political and legislative attacks on them, a lot of people are choosing to go to the private sector instead, and it’s hard to blame them,” he said.

“Our members are at a breaking point right now, we strongly feel that now more than ever, our state needs to come together and support our public school educators.”

Morgan said he was happy to see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget which addresses many of those challenges. 

Whitmer has signed legislation that allows school employees with high school educations, instead of two years of college, to temporarily become substitute teachers.

The sponsors are Reps. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, Julie Calley, R-Portland, Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, and Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming.

One concern the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals had was insufficient transparency around the topic, according to Zdeb.

“When the legislation was proposed to allow non-certified school employees to sub, the association opposed that legislation,” Zdeb said. “We were one of the only school groups to oppose it, and obviously as school principals, we understand the day-to-day (problem) of not having someone to fill a position.”

This is because many parents assume that when there is a substitute teacher, that person is certified to teach.

“We wanted these individuals to, instead of being ‘teachers,’ have a certified classroom permit to make apparent exactly what is happening,” Zdeb said. “This way, (districts) would be completely transparent (with parents) about the fact that this person is not a certified teacher.”

The “Grow Your Own” grants are funded with $1 million in state funds. Applications are open through March 18 and there are up to 80 grants for teachers and 80 for preparing future educators.

The grants will give paraprofessionals and other support personnel the opportunity to teach and give districts the chance to recruit future teachers, “bring them on board and get them thinking about being teachers earlier,” Zdeb said.

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