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WKU sees increase in students choosing education programs, despite national decrease

Rhonda J. Miller

The COVID-19 pandemic imposed unprecedented demands on teachers, as they had to shift back and forth between classroom and virtual teaching. They often risked their health, while school districts learned how best to implement safety measures to minimize the spread of the virus. 

The pandemic only added to the financial stress of modest teacher salaries. According to the National Education Association, about 20 percent of teachers hold second jobs during the school year.

Also, many teachers decided to retire early or go into a different career. 

WKU Public Radio Reporter Rhonda Miller talked with Western Kentucky University Dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Corinne Murphy, about the shortage of teachers and how WKU has increased the number of students majoring in education, despite the challenges. 

Murphy: There is a shortage of teachers in our schools. It is more acute in certain areas. For elementary education, we're seeing it manifest in a few different ways. The first actually has to do with the number of substitute teachers that we are required to try to recruit into the schools. It's an indicator that our schools are not full of certified teachers right now. So, the more substitute teachers that we have, the bigger indicator that it is that we're at a shortage. We also have a shortage of applicants for open positions. So, where we used to have robust pools of 40 to 50 people applying for any open elementary education position, we now have districts reporting that they may have two, three or five applicants. And so, we're significantly concerned around that continuing decrease of the volume of the workforce.

Miller: Do you see or have numbers, or approximate numbers of how many students are entering education maybe this year, compared to last year, maybe five years ago, or has it changed a lot since the pandemic? 

Murphy: Prior to 2019, we did see a significant decline in the initial enrollment for students in education programs, especially elementary education, special education and the secondary content areas. At that point, we took on a partnership with our school districts and our faculty and our staff here to do a full-scale recruitment campaign around the concept of education as a profession, a lifelong profession where there are leadership and growth opportunities. And in doing that we've comprehensively addressed recruitment in such a way that we will be posting our third year of growth this year into education programs. So, we are bucking a national trend, and the national trend is a 30 percent decline.

Miller: You know, so many teachers I've ever spoken to say, they take home work. They're grading papers. They're doing lesson plans at home. They have to take over classes and they don't have planning periods. And most of all, they spend their money for school supplies. And many of them have second jobs. Is that a viable way to be, you know, to have a profession?

Murphy: I think anecdotal stories certainly point to one of the challenges that we have, which is the base pay that a starting teacher begins. 

Miller: I just wonder what your overall perspective is now, as far as the teaching profession and all these things that they've had to go through the past couple years.

Murphy: I think we've certainly recognized over the past couple of years acutely how important the educator workforce really is to the health of a community. Our most successful teachers have demonstrated a level of flexibility, responsiveness and really met the daily changing demands of a pandemic, when folks were not prepared for this. The health of our communities is directly tied to the health of our schools. And so when we invest in our schools, when we invest in our teachers, when we recognize that education, as a long term profession is actually an economic and health driver for communities then we will be making progress in our region.

Miller: Thank you so much Dr. Murphy, good talking with you.

Murphy: You're very welcome and it was a pleasure.

Miller: I’ve been talking with Corinne Murphy, Dean of the WKU College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. I’m Rhonda Miller in Bowling Green.

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