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The teacher shortage in Wisconsin: Why are fewer people wanting to become teachers?

The teacher shortage in Wisconsin: Why are fewer people wanting to become teachers?
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The teacher shortage in Wisconsin: Why are fewer people wanting to become teachers?

MADISON, Wis. - Teaching has been regarded as one of the most important jobs someone can have. But more and more school districts are finding it harder to hire teachers and get them to stay. 

Jennifer Murphy is a program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She's been teaching for the past 21 years, and now has a class with only four students in it who want to become teachers.

Murphy's small classroom is a representation of the bigger issue across the state: a teacher shortage. 

"I can vividly remember having to sift through applicant upon applicant for jobs and now, we have jobs that go unfilled," Murphy said. 

On top of teaching, Murphy also helps recruit new teachers. She said over the years, it's been more and more noticeable how big the problem is getting. 

"There are so many things being put on teachers, so many extra demands that are even beyond the scope of our administrators in the building, that teachers are really struggling with how to put up boundaries, what to say no to, what they can and can't say no to and how to navigate all of that while keeping their own mental health and well being at the same time," she said. 

Murphy admits that although she loves her job, there's been times when she's considered choosing a different career path. 

"There's been times I've ebbed and flowed and wondered if I'm able to keep doing this,' Murphy said. "As my life has changed, and I've gotten older and had a family, can I keep with all the demands of the work? It's a really hard thing to grapple with and the grappling is because I know deep down this is where I want to be. So how do I find a space to make that happen?"

The University of Wisconsin system put together a task force to find possible solutions. Deb Kerr is one of the leaders of the team. 

"Over the last 10 years, the UW system and college of education have seen a dramatic decrease of student enrollment in teacher education programs," Kerr said. 

Kerr, with the help of the dean at UW Madison's school of education, Diana Hess, is leading the effort to combat the teacher shortage in Wisconsin. What they've found is felt by teachers everywhere.

"Teachers are concerned about coming out of college and having student loan debt in many cases, and then having relatively low salaries," Hess said. 

But salary and student loans are just part of the problem. 

Murphy said she's spoken to a number of teachers who have said the other issues include poor work conditions, unsupportive administrators, stress related to short staffing and a lack of qualified applicants.

"It is really hard," Murphy said. "They're even more overworked, overburdened and overstressed so less positivity happens as a result. People see our schools as failing because teachers don't have the resources to continue. So, then because schools are doing poorly, does that mean we have less teachers wanting to come in and it's just this vicious cycle."

Murphy said while she wants to see more teachers being hired, she also wants to make sure they're right for the job. 

"I don't want to feel like we are convincing people they should go into teaching. It's not a profession where I feel like we're dragging someone into," Murphy said. "But if people are feeling a calling to teach, what is it that is holding them back?"

Hess said it could be how the public views teaching as a profession.

"Teachers are feeling they don't always have the support they need from parents and the public," Hess said. 

Murphy said this is a problem that can make teachers feel like they're in a profession that has little value to the rest of the world. 

"I think it's because they care so much. They care so much about the work and they feel like they can't do enough," Murphy said. 

Despite all the issues, there are still people who want to go into the field. One of Murphy's own students, Andrew Close, is one of them.

"Even though it is exhausting every day of the week, there's nothing that can beat a moment when you just see a light bulb go off in a student's head," Close said. 

Close is entering a field he knows is suffering, but says it's the teachers who have impacted his life in such a meaningful way, that have inspired him to do this. 

"The teachers in my life that just took time to care about me and offer additional support outside of class time and just be great role models in my life," Close said.

The people make it worth it for Close and Murphy and many others. Although salary is a part of the solution, Murphy said that may not solve the bigger problems teachers face. 

"I worry sometimes when the public perception is that teacher's salary is going to fix everything, because it really isn't," Murphy said. "There's a lot of other variables at play here that make teaching and working in schools challenging right now that just teacher's salary alone is not a sufficient fix."

Hess said the task force is looking into solutions based on what other states have done to try to combat the teacher shortage. 

"Some other states have experimented with programs where there is much more robust loan forgiveness," Hess said. "If someone takes out student loans to become a teacher, and they teach in Wisconsin and stay for 'x' number of years, their loan is forgiven. And we know that that is not a panacea, we need to do other things as well. But that's a strategy that I think members of the task force might feel is worth looking into."

The task force at UW Madison is working to figure out other solutions as well. Hess and Kerr are seeking public input for suggestions on how to combat the teacher shortage in Wisconsin. On their feedback form here, you can submit your suggestions until mid-May. The task force will compile a list of all the suggestions people submit and put together a report of solutions they will look into to improve the shortage situation in Wisconsin. They said their goal is to have the report out by June. 

"Kids need high quality teachers and we need better leaders in this field, and I think if we work together and collaborate, we can make this happen," Kerr said.
 

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