Kianna Ameni-Melvin’s parents used to tell her that there was not much money to be made in education. But it was easy enough for her to ignore them when she enrolled in an education study program, with her mind set on teaching special education in high school.
Then the coronavirus closed her campus at Towson University in Maryland, and she sat at home watching her twin brother, who has autism, as she struggled through online classes. He began to question how the profession’s low pay could affect the challenges of teaching in the face of a pandemic.
He asked his classmates if they were considering other fields as well. Some of them were. He then began researching roles with transferable skills, such as human resources. “I didn’t want to start looking down on a career that I was passionate about for pay,” said 21-year-old Ameni-Melvin.
Few professions have been more affected by the pandemic than teaching, as school districts have wavered between in-person, remote and hybrid learning models, leaving teachers concerned about their health and struggling to do their jobs effectively.
For students who consider a profession in crisis, the disruptions have sown doubts, which can be seen in the decline in enrollment.
A survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education found that 19 percent of undergraduate-level teaching programs and 11 percent of graduate-level teaching programs saw a significant drop in enrollment this year . And Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income schools across the country, said it had received fewer applications for its fall 2021 corps compared to this period last year.
Many program leaders believe that enrollment declined due to the perceived dangers posed by face-to-face teaching and the difficulties of distance learning, combined with long-standing frustrations over low pay compared to professions that require similar levels of education. (The national average for a public school teacher’s salary is about $ 61,000.) Some hope that enrollment will return to its pre-pandemic level as vaccines are implemented and schools resume in-person learning.
But the challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers run deeper: The number of education degrees awarded by American colleges and universities dropped by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019, despite an overall increase in American college graduates, fueling concerns about a future teacher shortage.
For some young people, doubts about their incorporation into the teaching workforce amid the pandemic are simple: They fear that the work now carries a greater risk.
Nicole Blagsvedt, an education student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, felt a jolt of anxiety as she began her classroom training at a local public school that recently brought her students back for full in-person learning. After months of seeing only her roommates, moving around a classroom full of fourth and fifth graders was stressful.
Ms. Blagsvedt’s role also included new responsibilities: disinfecting fussy toys, enforcing the use of masks, coordinating the cleaning of water bottles that students brought to school because they couldn’t use the water fountains. In his first week, he received a call from an office assistant informing him that one of his students had been exposed to Covid-19 and that he had to help get the students out of the classroom so they could disinfect it.
“This panic crossed my mind,” he said. “I thought: this is how it is going to be now.”
Administrators running teacher preparation programs said the new anxieties were likely scaring off some potential applicants. “People are weighing whether or not it makes sense to go to a classroom when there are alternatives that may seem safer,” said David J. Chard, dean of the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University.
But for many students, the challenges posed by remote teaching can be just as high. Those who train in districts with virtual classes have had to adjust their expectations; While they may have imagined themselves holding hands with students and forming deep relationships, they now find themselves looking at faces on a Zoom grid.
“Being online is exhausting,” said Oscar Nollette-Patulski, who had started a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Michigan but is now considering changing majors. “You have to like what you’re doing a lot more for it to translate on a computer. I wonder, if I don’t like doing this online that much, should I get a degree at it? “
In some cases, distance learning has completely deprived education students of training opportunities. At Portland State University in Oregon, some students were unable to get classroom placements while schools were operating remotely. Others were only given restricted access to student documents and academic records due to privacy concerns.
At the university’s College of Education, there was a decline in applications this year, which dean Marvin Lynn attributed to students in the community who learned about difficulties in training during the pandemic.
The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.
Requests may be repeated as schools return to in-person learning, Dr. Lynn said, but challenges are likely to last longer than this year. Educators have struggled with recruiting for the profession since long before the pandemic. In recent years, about 8 percent of public school teachers left the workforce annually, due to retirement or attrition. National teacher surveys have identified low pay and poor working conditions as causes of turnover.
The pandemic is likely to exacerbate burnout and exhaustion. In a recent national study of teachers by the RAND Corporation, a quarter of those surveyed said they were likely to leave the profession before the end of the school year. Almost half of the public school teachers who stopped teaching after March 2020, but before their scheduled retirements, did so due to Covid-19.
This attrition occurs even as many schools are trying to add staff to handle small class sizes and ensure compliance with Covid-19 safety protocols. Miguel A. Cardona, the Secretary of Education, recently asked for financial help to reopen schools safely, which will allow them to incorporate more employees to make their classes smaller. The Covid-19 aid package approved by President Biden includes $ 129 billion in funding for K-12 schools, which can be used to augment staff.
Not all teacher preparation programs are experiencing a decline in interest. California State University Long Beach saw an enrollment increase of 15 percent this year, according to preliminary data from the system. Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, deputy vice chancellor for the university system, attributes this in part to an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom, which temporarily allowed candidates to enter prep programs without meeting basic skills requirements due to a shortage of teachers in the state.
Columbia University Teachers College in New York City also saw a surge in applications this year, according to a spokesperson, who noted that teaching has historically been a “recession-proof profession” that sometimes attracts more youth. in times of crisis.
Even some of those who had doubts have chosen to continue with their plans. Ms. Ameni-Melvin, the Towson student, said she would continue her educational program for now because she felt committed after three years there.
Maria Ízunza Barba also decided to put her doubts aside and began an education study program at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education last fall. Early in the pandemic, as she watched her parents, both professors, stumble across the difficulties of preparing for a remote class, she wondered: was it too late to choose law school?
Ms. Ízunza Barba, 19, had promised to help her mother with any technical difficulties that arose during her first class, so she crawled under the desk, out of the students’ view, and showed her mother which buttons to press to share. your screen.
Then she saw her mother, eager to get the students’ attention, perform a song in Spanish about economics.
Ms. Ízunza Barba said that she realized then that there was no other career path that could be so meaningful. “Watching her make her students laugh made me realize how much a teacher can impact someone’s day,” he said. “I was like, wow, that’s something I want to do.”