By AMBREEN ALI at NJ Spotlight News

Even before COVID-19, schools saw big drops in students studying to become teachers Jennifer Cifelli was planning to teach for another decade when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but she realized a few months in that it was time to quit. Working 18-hour days, barely sleeping, and constantly planting her own kids in front of the TV so she could catch up on work was beginning to break her.

“I felt like I was putting my student’s needs ahead of my own kids,” said Cifelli, who left a job as a middle school Spanish teacher in Somerset County last year to open a café in Skillman.

She is pulling even longer hours managing the newly opened small business, but Cifelli says she is more at ease.

“I don’t miss the constant being on-the-clock. I always felt like I was just waiting for some parents to complain, ‘Oh, why did my kid get a C on their test,’” she said, recalling her 12-year tenure in education. “I might have been able to last a little longer if there was just some more respect for the entire teaching profession.”

The nationwide squeeze on the teacher supply during the pandemic has drawn much attention, and New Jersey is no exception. Nearly 4,000 teachers retired in the state last year, up about 10% from the previous year, according to the New Jersey Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund. Earlier this month, the National Education Association reported that 55% of educators are ready to leave the field sooner than they had planned, and school officials worry about a potential exodus in New Jersey as well.

Fewer new teachers

But just as worrisome is that the fewer teachers are coming up to fill in those ranks. Colleges and other organizations cite a dropping interest among their students in becoming educators, a situation only exacerbated by the on-the-job stresses of teaching during the pandemic.

‘We have seen a real decline in people wanting to be a teacher.’

Even before the pandemic, teaching was becoming a less attractive career to students. Education degrees comprised 5.6% of all degrees awarded in New Jersey in 2020, down from 9.6% in 2009. At the bachelor’s degree level, the decline is even more dramatic, with education degrees comprising 6.9% of all degrees awarded in 2020 and 11.76% in 2009 — a 41% decrease.

And though New Jersey boasts among the highest-paid teachers in the country at a median salary of just over $70,000, fewer students are signing up.

At Rider University, college enrollment in general was down during the pandemic, but no program saw as big a dip as education. Fewer than 300 undergraduates enrolled as education majors in the fall, down 28% from four years ago.

“We have seen a real decline in people wanting to be a teacher,” said Jason Barr, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Rider. “A big part of that was students who had spent the last year or two in online learning, saying, ‘This is not a profession for me.’”

Barr said he receives calls nearly every day from school districts looking to fill open positions and, although nearly all his students will have jobs lined up when they graduate, this high-demand career simply doesn’t look as attractive as other options to most young people.

Barriers to entry

Part of that is the due to the barriers to entry in the teaching profession. After completing their coursework, for example, students must devote time and significant money — up to $1,500 beyond tuition and fees — to prepare for and pass assessment exams that research has questioned as predictors of how well a teacher will perform in the classroom. Barr said the assessments also put some students at a disadvantage.

“Some of our marginalized students have a harder time passing these teacher assessments — especially those students who come from poorer-performing high schools,” Barr said.

Those are the very teachers the state needs most, he said, to address a mismatch between its students, 56% of whom are people of color, and its teacher workforce, which is 84% white.

The costs alone can be prohibitive, agreed Suzanne McCotter, dean of the School of Education at The College of New Jersey, who started fundraising for scholarships that offset the fees after learning that some faculty members were paying for them on behalf of students.

“Kids from diverse backgrounds or who are first generation are often the ones hit hardest by those additional costs,” said McCotter.

Waiving certain requirements

In September, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a five-year pilot program that will allow school districts to apply for state permission to waive one certification requirement for up to 10% of the teachers they hire, as long as school administrations agree to provide those teachers additional support. The requirements include the assessments, but also the state’s 3.0 GPA minimum for new teachers.

The program has the potential to expedite the hiring of hundreds of teachers in the fall, according to Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, a nonprofit that advocated for the legislation.

Deans and directors of educator programs are exploring other ways to draw more people to teaching, including outreach to middle and high schools as well as better transition programs at community colleges. This week it was announced that high school students entering a Newark Public Schools teacher training program could receive up to $3,700 in incentives…

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