Responding to the growing need for teachers

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – We tackle a topic that’s going to come into play, certainly as the school year gets underway in just a few short weeks. In fact, it’s already a concern for many school systems, not only here at home, but across the country. And that is the teacher shortage. Where can we find qualified educators? How do we train them and get them to get those jobs and stay on those jobs? Well, I’ll tell you what, Augusta University got a pretty good score in that department recently. We’ll let you know about that shortly, but first let’s talk about this issue in depth with Dr. Judi Wilson. Dr. Wilson is the Dean of the College of Education at Augusta University.

Brad Means: Dr. Wilson, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us. Y’all don’t get Summers off, do you?

Dr. Judi Wilson: We don’t get Summers off, Brad. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

Brad Means: Well, we appreciate your expertise on this topic, for sure. So just to kind of set the scene for the viewers, when you hear the words teacher shortage, as far as AU is concerned, we’re not talking about college teacher shortages. This is your elementary, middle and high school, right?

Dr. Judi Wilson: That is correct. It’s our local teachers that are teaching our sons, our daughters, our grandsons’ grandsons in our local schools. And it’s not just a local shortage. It’s a national shortage as well. And it’s been going on for a number of years, but the shortage is worse than I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve been in education for 30 years.

Brad Means: I know there are lots of reasons, but just how about this for a reason, is it just simply that fewer people want to be teachers? They don’t find the profession attractive?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Well, I think that’s certainly part of it. You know, it’s a difficult profession. It’s challenging, it’s complex, it’s an art, it’s not a science. And there are a lot of variables that make teaching a difficult profession. And like you said, we don’t get the summers off, even though people think that we do, teachers are still in professional learning and preparing for new curriculum that needs to be developed. They’re engaged for much of the summer. Not all of the summer. They definitely do have some time off, but it’s a difficult profession. There are so many difficulties right now in society, you know, with just children coming from difficult home situations that make teaching even more difficult than maybe it has been in the past. And so for those reasons, along with accountability factors, and I believe that accountability is a positive thing, but sometimes it can be viewed very negatively. And sometimes the impact of that accountability in a teacher’s classroom can be really difficult to overcome. And just the publicity, the negative publicity that comes along with that accountability piece can be very difficult and discouraging for educators. But we’re encouraging educators to press through. We’ve seen some amazing, powerful stories. And I know that you’ve covered some of those in your newscast this past year. What I would call COVID success stories.

Brad Means: Yeah, there’ve been a lot, and I don’t mean to cut you off. And by the way,-

Dr. Judi Wilson: No, that’s fine.

Brad Means: You know, a year and a half into this pandemic , and I still haven’t mastered Zoom. You can’t tell when to interrupt somebody as you would, if they were right across the desk from you. So hopefully we’ll get back to that soon, but let me jump in and ask you about that accountability. So are you saying all the standards that you have to check off to get through your day or your year, are you talking about that kind of criteria that prevents you from just sometimes being a human being and connecting with your kids?

Dr. Judi Wilson: That is exactly it. And we know that relationships are the key to learning. Students have to be able to trust us, but teachers are facing more and more accountability, and it’s not just in the classroom, it’s here at the university as well. We have more and more standards that we’re asked to meet every year, you know, in terms of accreditation and making sure that we’re meeting the admission requirements that are required for certification. And it seems like that the standards just keep going up.

Brad Means: Mh-hmm.

Dr. Judi Wilson: And so it’s just difficult to keep up with that. And it certainly has been a factor in us not being able to attract and retain highly-qualified teachers in the profession.

Brad Means: Yeah, let’s look at that retention. So what happens? Somebody goes through the training and education that it takes to get that certification, and then what, Dr. Wilson? They go to the classroom and become disenchanted? If so, how long does it take for the dew to come off the rose, and for them to say, you know what, this felt like a calling, and now I hate it.

Dr. Judi Wilson: Right. We know that nationally about 30% of teachers are leaving within the first, you know, few years. And then within the first five years, nationally around 50% of teachers are leaving the profession. So there is a mass Exodus that occurs. I’m proud to report that, Augusta University for the past many years has actually had a much higher retention rate of that. And I believe that that’s very much, you know, attributed to our faculty and just the boots on the ground relationships that they form with the students that are in our program. And certainly our partnerships with our local school systems where we get our students out often and early, and they truly know what is going to be expected in this profession. So there aren’t a lot of surprises when our students enter their own classroom, you know, that first year when they begin teaching. And so we have actually found our retention rates are high.

Brad Means: Yeah, I wanna, especially in our second segment kind of delve into what y’all secret is, and how you help our teachers like their jobs, and certainly know what to expect on their jobs from day one. But tell me about the teacher shortage and where you’re seeing it manifest. Is it urban areas? Is it rural areas or do we need teachers everywhere?

Dr. Judi Wilson: We need teachers everywhere. I don’t know if you’ve been on the Columbia County website recently, but their school system is needing more teachers than I’ve ever seen since we’ve lived here. And we’ve been here over 20 years. So at this point, usually, you know, most of their positions are taken. They usually have a few that are still outliers in high-need areas, but we’re seeing it across the board. It doesn’t matter which population you’re talking about, which demographics, there is a shortage of teachers. And so yeah, go ahead.

Brad Means: Does anybody wanna be a special education teacher anymore? Is that a super hard category to fill?

Dr. Judi Wilson: It is a very difficult category to fill. But Brad, I can tell you that if anyone out there is interested in becoming a special ed teacher, and has the heart for that, we’ve got some scholarship money that we would love to put in their hands-

Brad Means: Wow.

Dr. Judi Wilson: To help enhance that bridge between their dream and their desire to become a special education teacher and actually getting into the classroom.

Brad Means: Can anybody become a teacher? Or do you have to just major in it when you’re young?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Yeah, no, absolutely. We have career changers all the time. In fact, our Master of Arts and Teaching Program is one of our strongest programs in the College of Education. It’s called an MAT, and that is for people who have a degree in something other than education, and they’re going back to get an additional degree. So they come back to get a master’s degree and they come back to get certification. So we can offer that online. So it’s flexible. It’s easy for people to do, even if they have another job, we can work with them, generally, in finding field experiences. And then the other thing that is happening is a new trend, which is people are actually being hired with a bachelor’s degree to teach with the understanding that they will be enrolled in some type of a program, a teacher preparation program. So they could actually get a job in a content area that they had their undergraduate degree in, and be a part of our online MAT program in elementary, middle grades or secondary starting immediately. And our applications are open until July 16 for fall admissions.

Brad Means: Okay, so still time to jump in for fall. We are talking to Dr. Judi Wilson, she’s the Dean of Augusta University’s College of Education. When we come back, we’ll talk about the efforts that AU is constantly making to prepare our teachers, on The Means Report.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to the Means Report. We’re talking about the state of teaching, and the need for teachers, and how Augusta University is stepping up to meet that need. Dr. Judi Wilson is the Dean of AU’s College of Education. And Dr. Wilson, let me just touch on the pandemic very quickly. Certainly that has impacted the way that teaching is carried out. Have y’all changed your curriculum to that so that we can get through the rest of this as long as it lasts, and be ready for the next one?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Absolutely, Brad. And I’m also proud to report that we had actually already integrated something into our curriculum around online teaching. We always try to have what I call anticipatory leadership, kind of looking at what might happen or what we need to be prepared for. And so several years ago, we integrated how to teach online and we’ve done that in every single program that we have. And so our educators that have graduated, you know, in the past few years, as well as those that were in the process of graduating during the pandemic were well-prepared to move into delivery method. And they actually were able to help their master teachers as they were doing student teaching, transition a little bit easier into that mode of delivery. So, you know, we certainly have made adjustments, but we’re very proud to report that our students were actually able to complete their student teaching both in the fall and in the spring, and that was face to face. We had a few interruptions, you know, for example, Richmond County might close the school down for a couple of weeks and then reopen. And so those student teachers kind of moved from a face-to-face to an online delivery method. But generally speaking, our educators have just been incredibly resilient and we really didn’t miss a beat.

Brad Means: You know, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission awarded Augusta University’s College of Education a perfect accreditation review that deserves to be shouted from the mountain top. And it is so noteworthy to say the least. Dr. Wilson, congratulations on that. And I can’t imagine the criteria that you had to meet to get that full on accreditation. Is it just a daily constant effort to make sure that you produce the best teachers possible?

Dr. Judi Wilson: It absolutely is. It’s an incredible responsibility that none of us take lightly. You know, we are preparing teachers for, again, you know, for our own kids or our grandkids or our nieces or our nephews. And so every student that comes through, we take that responsibility very seriously. And so we’ve been working for, you know, over seven years in preparation for this accreditation visit, it typically happens about every seven years. And so every day, you know, day in and day out, we’re constantly making improvements. We’re constantly looking at data to make informed decisions about what we need to do next, and how we need to recalibrate, and maybe we need to adjust our curriculum or, you know, like I shared with you, adding in the online component, that’s a huge change that we made a few years ago to make sure that we were preparing the most qualified, knowledgeable, you know, and highly-ethical teachers to serve in our public schools, as well as our private schools.

Brad Means: Where does the real preparation start for a student when it comes to getting them ready for the actual classroom experience? How early in their education today does that kick in? Because that’s the part, as we talked about in our first segment where people become disenchanted and leave. But not with your graduates, they stay put for years and years and years. How early do you say, okay, it’s gonna be like this.

Dr. Judi Wilson: Yeah, so for our undergraduates, they actually take three early classes in education, Foundations and Education, a diversity class, Philosophy of Education. And in each of those classes, they receive 20 hours of field experience. So our students, even before they apply to come into the program, they’ve been out in the schools, and we actually encourage them, even if they think that they wanna be a high school teacher, we encourage them to go into an elementary school for one placement, maybe a middle school for another placement, and then a high school for the third placement, just to make sure that they have taken off what I call the hat of an educator. Because some of us think that we can be an educator, because we’ve sat in a classroom for so long, and put on the hat of a professional educator, and those are two totally different things. And so we want to give them that really boots on the ground experience to try that on and see how that feels before they actually come into the program. So a number of our students actually do decide not to come into the program, which is part of why we have such a high retention rate once they get into the program, because they’ve already made those difficult choices that maybe this is not right for me. So we give them plenty of field experience, plenty of time to really understand the realities of the classroom.

Brad Means: That field experience, if they’re going to run for the hills, that’s when it happens?

Dr. Judi Wilson: It absolutely is. And as a parent, that’s what I would want my child to do.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Judi Wilson: If it wasn’t a good fit. You know, you certainly don’t want people to waste time, and money, and energy, and stress in majoring in something that they’re not passionate about, and that they’re not comfortable in. So it really is kind of trying on that hat to see if it’s a good fit for them.

Brad Means: Well, you know, I know you mentioned the classes that you offer your undergrads that can help them get ready for that experience when they put on their teacher hat. What- Do you ever get into, I don’t wanna say parenting or psychology or things like that, but any courses that prepare you to have a better relationship with that child, and be able to make that connection?

Dr. Judi Wilson: We absolutely do. And that really is the key to high-quality effective teaching is to develop that bond, to develop that relationship, to develop the trust. Classroom Management is a course where that really happens a lot because the whole idea behind Classroom Management is not about managing kids, but it’s about developing relationships with kids, and putting together the rules, the routines, the procedures that allow a class to move smoothly, and allow a teacher to make the greatest impact on the academic achievement of the students in that classroom. So that’s where we delve into some of those issues. But we also do it in some of our other education classes, our pedagogy classes, our content classes, as well as those three classes that I was telling you about that are foundational to our program.

Brad Means: How quickly can these young people get paychecks after they leave AU? There’s such a shortage, how fast can they be on the payroll?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Yeah, we have a hundred percent retention rate, you know, in terms of students being employed in the schools, if they want to be employed. You know, every now and then we’ll have someone who comes through the program that maybe gets pregnant and decided she wants to stay home with the child. And so occasionally we’ll have those, but for those that want a job, it is absolutely immediate. And like I shared with you for the career changers that already have a degree in something other than education and they want to teach, they can be hired now and come into our MAT program as early as this fall. So it’s an immediate paycheck.

Brad Means: Do schools love to see Augusta University on that diploma? When they do, do they say, “oh please, please come work for us.”

Dr. Judi Wilson: Absolutely, they do. We work very closely with the HR directors in each of our counties. And of course I meet with the local school superintendents at least once a month and sometimes more than that. So we have a strong relationship with all of our schools. We’re constantly talking, Brad, about what’s working, what’s not, what do we need to adjust. How should we recalibrate as a program? We’re constantly looking at data together. We’ve got a number of different initiatives to do that, and they’re very structured. So we ensure that those happen on a yearly basis, if not even more than that, depending on what the structure is. And so we’re constantly re-evaluating and in contact with them. It is a true reciprocal relationship between us and our local school systems. So they’re very excited to get our graduates, and they’re constantly telling me that I’m not producing enough. So we are out there recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.

Brad Means: You know, had the pleasure to talk to Augusta University President Dr. Brooks Keel a couple of weeks ago. And we talked about, among other things, the great relationship that AU has with lawmakers and leaders in Atlanta, starting with the governor. Do you all ever lobby those folks to back off on their standards or at least readjust them so that the job of a teacher is easier when it comes to the relationships that you mentioned, and the connections that are critical to successful teaching and learning?

Dr. Judi Wilson: We absolutely do. We’re constantly engaged in governmental relations and trying to stay abreast of the next thing that is coming forward. We have a couple of professional organizations here in the state of Georgia that most educators are part of. And so they have lobbying teams that are working with our legislators. And so much of it is just not understanding what’s going on. So maybe, you know, someone sees one piece of data, but they don’t know the whole story. And so sometimes it’s just presenting the entire story to some of our legislators, because it’s certainly not because they don’t care, sometimes it’s just because they don’t know other things that are occurring. And so our job is really to educate and to advocate on behalf of our profession.

Brad Means: I know we haven’t talked about substitute teachers or parapros, but what kind of a need is there for those two types of teachers, and how does one go down that path? Parapro or substitute.

Dr. Judi Wilson: Sure, those are both trained within the school systems. And so every school system has a little bit of a different approach for that. It’s usually, you know, a day or two in training, sometimes a little bit more than that. Again, depending on the district. We also, you know, have worked with our parapros because a lot of times those are incredible teachers. They’re just, they just don’t have the degree to actually be certified, to be the Teacher of Record. One of the best experiences that I had as a first year teacher was working with a paraprofessional that could’ve been the Teacher of Record, but she didn’t have a degree. And so, you know, I was constantly encouraging her to go back to school because she had the gift, she had the talent, she had the heart to be a highly-qualified teacher. She just needed that certification. So we’ll work with people like that as well, if they’re interested in trying to find a pathway to become the Teacher of Record, but those, those are needed in schools as well.

Brad Means: Have kids changed over the years? You get a lot of feedback from your graduates. Have children changed?

Dr. Judi Wilson: They have absolutely changed. And I think you would know that just in looking at neighbors or friends. You know, society looks so different now than when I started in my own classroom 30 years ago. And so again, we just have to constantly, I think be listening, and learning, and adjusting, and really understanding. Stephen Covey talks about seek first to understand. And I think about that a lot in my profession. trying to understand what these kids have been through, you know, what was their life like that morning when they got up, you know, getting on the bus, how far did they have to ride? Did they have breakfast? You know, were they hungry last night when they went to bed? Did they go to bed? Was the TV, you know, blaring all night? Or were people in and out of the apartment or the house, you know, are they homeless? There are just so many variables right now. Teachers have always had to be cognizant of that, but now more than ever, that’s incredibly important.

Brad Means: Dr. Wilson, what kind of rewards do you get out of your job? You know, you’re not in the trenches every day like the teachers who see the light bulb come on, or who see the kid who had a bad morning, and it turns into a brilliant school day. What’s your reward that lets you know you chose the right job?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Yeah, I’m incredibly blessed to be in a position to be able to help others, Brad. And that’s really what I do all day. So I’m helping our students. I’m helping our alumns. I’m helping our superintendents. I’m helping local school principals, and assistant principals, and HR directors to meet their goals. And so that’s really the satisfaction that I have is in those relationships and hearing those success stories. Sometimes I don’t get to see them.

Brad Means: Mm-hmm

Dr. Judi Wilson: But I’ll often get to hear those success stories. And then also stay in the classroom. I taught this semester, a language arts curriculum class, and so I was able to get out in the schools both in the fall and in the spring and actually get to know some of the students and watch our students in action. And so that’s where the reward comes is from the stories of impact.

Brad Means: You know, it’s gotta be a pretty powerful feeling to know that you are producing these teachers, and going out there. And I know it feels like an uphill battle because the shortage is so great, but you’re putting a dent in it. And I appreciate that. And you are, yeah, you’re at AU certainly, but you are impacting lives just as much as those teachers themselves. So what do you see for the future? What do you see for this shortage? Will it get better in the coming school year, maybe? Or will we have to wait a while longer than that?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Well, I don’t have a crystal ball.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Judi Wilson: So I can’t answer that. What I can tell you though, is that we’re looking to the future with great hope and anticipation, and you know, the students that we have in our program, I’m just so encouraged about the lives that they’re going to impact. And you know, every single student that they come in contact with is their difference. They are difference makers out in the classroom. So we are doing everything that we can to try to position us well, to both attract, you know, highly-qualified potential educators, provide scholarship money if needed to bridge that gap financially, and then release them into the classroom. And then we’ve got a real strong induction program with all of our school systems as well. So we actually provide support for their first three years of teaching, which is part of our high retention rate as well.

Brad Means: Well, what does that support look like?

Dr. Judi Wilson: Yeah, so we actually work with our local school superintendents, as well as our associate superintendents and HR directors. And we have an induction collaborative that many of them participate in. So this is our local school systems that actually, they come here to campus several times a year, and we talk about the data that they’ve got in their districts in terms of new teachers and the support that is needed. And a huge part of that is our Impacting Student Learning Conference that we hold every spring, which is free for our local teachers. And so they’re actually able to come, and they can craft a day just for them. So looking at their own professional needs, they can craft sessions that they will attend to make sure that they’re growing as a professional. So we’ve got all kinds of systems in place. And I think that really is the key. You can’t just meander through this work. You have to be systematic, you have to be thoughtful, and you have to be intentional. So our eye is always on the prize, and that prize is to make sure that we have a highly-qualified, effective teacher in every classroom.

Brad Means: Well, the payoff is so worth the investment that you’re overseeing every day there at Augusta university. Dr. Judi Wilson. Again, thank you for what you do for teachers and for all of our children out there.