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Teacher shortage a problem in Indiana

The teacher shortage in the state of Indiana and beyond was the topic addressed by a panel of school officials Thursday night at the Tri-County Farm Bureau education dinner at Central Barren United Methodist Church.
‘I don’t want to sugarcoat this because this is a problem for the state of Indiana,’ Dr. Lance Richards, superintendent of North Harrison Community School Corp., said.
Richards said in a 10-year span, from 2004 to 2014, student enrollment in education dropped by about a third and 17 or 18 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years.
The biggest issues, he said, are pay, public perception, teacher licensing testing and high stakes testing (ISTEP, ILEARN).
He said a teacher’s starting salary cannot compete with other fields such as engineering or nursing.
‘We didn’t get into education to get rich,’ Richards said. ‘But, we didn’t get into it to starve either.’
Richards said there used to be an understanding, a partnership with the state, that teachers would start out low but would eventually rise up and get paid a decent wage at the end of their career.
Compared to 20 years ago, however, he said teachers’ wages have 16 percent less purchasing power.
Richards said the burden is more difficult on rural school corporations.
Some schools, mainly suburban, are thriving in the system, he said, because of the ‘money following the kids’ system which began 10 years ago.
The state spends a lot of money on education, Richards said, but they also invite a lot of other people to sit at the table with public schools, including charter schools and the voucher program to private schools.
‘We have people that want to be teachers,’ he said. ‘There’s no greater job than teaching a kid and watching that light come on and then suddenly they get it, or you getting them through a difficult social or emotional issue and help them stand on their feet and become a better contributing human being. Because for some of these kids, education is it. It’s the only thing they have to get through life and have an equalizer.’
Richards said the goal is to keep teaching as a relevant profession for the best and brightest in the community.
‘Teaching has to be a profession,’ he said. ‘It can’t be missionary work. The cost of education is too much to devalue the educator.’
Calling it a rewarding profession, Richards said kids will want to get into it if the community, society and especially the state help early educators survive their initial years of education to receive the reward that comes later.
Karen Schwartz, a North Harrison High School graduate and teacher at Phoenix School of Discovery in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, said every day as a teacher is a mission.
She said her room may be the only chaos-free place for her students in their life.
Schwartz said she doesn’t just teach math, but life skills every day. She told a story about taking mums to school to have the kids plant.
‘One of my kids said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever planted anything in my life’,’ she said.
Schwartz said teaching has been amazing for her and her family, but she wouldn’t necessarily do it again if she could go back to when she was 21 ‘if I knew how it was going to be … ‘
Schwartz said none of her five children considered teaching.
‘It’s not a 40-hour-a-week job,’ she said.
She said the profession is not portrayed very positively and lacks support and discipline.
‘I feel like my degree should matter,’ Schwartz said.
School violence also plays a role.
‘I think about that every day, I promise you,’ she said.
Teachers have to be all things to students: social worker, nurse, coach.
‘I’m the moral compass for some of these kids,’ Schwartz said. ‘Some people don’t want to take on all that.’
Crawford County High School principal Brandon Johnson said he has been in the role five years and has hired the same science position six times. He said the problem can be boiled down into three words: pressure on teachers.
‘There’s such pressure for them to perform,’ he said.
Johnson said nothing could have prepared him for the teaching profession.
‘I have not used one thing I learned in my undergrad degree to be an educator. Not one,’ he said. ‘Nothing that I learned at Purdue University, that I love very, very much, prepared me for what it was like on day one of walking into my special education seniors needing an English credit. Nothing I had prepared me for that.’
Johnson said the support students used to get at home isn’t there today.
‘The teachers, no matter what they do, they are questioned by the parents, the students,’ he said. ‘The pressure is there every day if the decision they make is the wrong one.’
Johnson said Crawford County has a mentor plan in place to help relieve pressure on teachers.
He said he also always has an open ear for his teachers and said the No. 1 way to help teachers is to create a good school culture.
‘Happy, safe kids make happy, safe teachers,’ he said.
Sal Sama, a member of the West Washington Community School Corp. School board and V.P. of sales and marketing for Premier Ag, said the best way schools can retain quality teachers is to have competitive salaries but also to create a fun environment where success is shared.
‘Create an environment where they can do what they enjoy doing, and they’ll excel at it,’ he said.
He also advised officials to be vigilant about wasteful spending.
‘What is important? What do you need vs. what you want,’ Sama said.
Sama said it’s even more difficult now to find teachers when the economy is ‘absolutely on fire.’
‘If you get your CDL, you can start out tomorrow at $85,000,’ he said. ‘It’s a shame a teacher coming out with a four-year degree, I can go out tomorrow, drive a truck and make twice what a teacher makes.’
The panel was moderated by Katrina Hall, of Indiana Farm Bureau. Gary Geswein provided the introductions of what was thought to be the 25th tri-county meeting, which now consists of four counties: Harrison, Washington, Orange and Crawford.