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Students, professors dissect teaching problems

University of Wisconsin-River Falls students Mari Meuwissen (right), Amber Raddatz (left), Madeline Miller practice a science experiment. Dr. Joel Donna (kneeling) said this type of experiment would be shown in elementary classrooms to learn about molecules. (River Falls Journal photos by Matthew Lambert)1 / 3
Dr. Michael Harris has been in education for 38 years, with 36 years during his time at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
University of Wisconsin-River Falls students Raven Hernandez (left) and Ellie Prax don't worry about lack of compensation for teachers. Rather, they want to become teachers to make a difference in the lives of children. 3 / 3

Editor's note: This is part two of our series on today's teaching shortage.

Raven Hernandez didn't know she wanted to become a school teacher until she was a junior in high school.

Ellie Prax grew up in a family of educators and knew when she was quite young.

Hernandez and Prax are students at the UW-River Falls studying education — Hernandez, in the area of physics; Prax, in the area of elementary education.

The chance to teach children and help guide a generation into the world was all the convincing they need to explore education as a career.

"I really enjoy watching kids learn...to see them understand something that, five minutes ago they didn't understand, seeing that light bulb go off is what I enjoy the most," Prax said.

With Hernandez, a junior, and Prax, a senior, coming from Illinois and Minnesota, respectively, when Act 10 was passed in Wisconsin and teacher shortages began to increase, the two weren't necessarily paying attention to the coverage.

"There's lots of jobs in Wisconsin, but nobody wants to teach in Wisconsin because all the stuff that has happened," Hernandez said. "I don't know lots of specifics on it, but I'm aware that it's confusing and not exactly the best place to be working right now."

These are the daily struggles that students and UWRF educators like Dr. Michael Harris and Dr. Joel Donna deal with in their classes, preparing students to become the highest quality teachers they can, while also dealing with harsh realities.

"These students are knowledgeable about Act 10, I'm certain, but they're passion is to be teachers," Harris said.

Harris, dean of education at UWRF, said when Act 10 was established, the law "devalued teaching as a profession" and also caused "some deterrence" in a career in education.

When Act 10 was passed by the Legislature in 2011, Harris said enrollment in the undergraduate education programs had "a dip" and overall the graduate education programs haven't bounced back.

"There's been over a 50 percent decrease in students in that program," Harris said.

Donna, UWRF education professor, said it's difficult for students to seek out their graduate degree in education when they're working for low pay and a pile of debt.

"They're looking at the level of debt they're taking in and what their salary is going to be and, you know, you're taking on quite a bit of debt for a profession, as a noble as it is, and how badly they want work with children, and bless them for that," Donna said.

In a survey of teachers who've left because of Act 10 or other reasons, 67 percent would say that an increase in salary would bring them back to the profession, according to Donna.

When she envisions her future career, Hernandez said money won't be the reason for her happiness.

"I don't think anyone goes into teaching knowing they're going to make a lot of money," Hernandez said. "I'm not going to teach because I want to be a millionaire."

Prax agreed with Hernandez, questioning why people would be deterred from a career if that's what they love to do.

"I'm not looking to make money," Prax said. "I was looking to do something I love. Why would you waste your time?"

As far as issues with teacher shortages, Donna said "none of these issues are new."

"We've had teacher shortages in the past. Similar calls have been to open up the pipeline, reduce the quote-un-quote barriers to entry," Donna said. "We certainly feel teacher licensure is a safeguard for Wisconsin students...We want to make sure we're going to have high quality well prepared teachers who are going to make a difference in the long run."

Along with Wisconsin, the nation is also feeling the teacher shortages.

Donna said from 2008-2009, there were 719,081 teachers nationally. In 2013-2014, the number dropped to 464,250.

The Learning Policy Institution (LPI) conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education around the county.

The LPI found that Wisconsin is below the U.S. average in salary at $36,141 — Wisconsin's is $33,546. The LPI also found that 10.5 percent of teachers leave the profession in Wisconsin while the nation is at 7.7 percent.

Programs like STEMTeach at UWRF have been created to encourage people in other fields who want to become teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math. It's an intensive graduate level program that lasts from summer to spring. This May will be the second year it's been available.

While STEMTeach is relatively new, a program like Shared Inquiry Communities has been around since 2010. The program is a learning method in the Master of Science in Education program, where students will help develop teaching and leadership skills.

For teachers enrolled in the program, those numbers are getting fewer and fewer.

Harris said before Act 10, there were 140 students in the program and a number of cohorts across the state. Now, that number is down to one cohort and 12 students.

The best way to bring further generations into the education field, according to Harris, is to establish that education is vital again.

"The major thing is for society to value education again," Harris said. "Supporting teachers once they're teaching to retain those teachers, that's the only way I see the solution to this."

While there are teacher shortages, Hernandez and Prax don't want to rule out having a career in Wisconsin.

"When they ask that question in class I say, wherever I can get a job....I don't want to settle for something if I can get a higher paying job in Minnesota," Prax said. "Then I probably wouldn't take the Wisconsin one, but if I could get paid in Wisconsin then I'd stay."

The best advice Hernandez can give to younger generations interested in the teaching profession is working with an age group you're interested in teaching.

"I've worked with middle school and high schoolers at camps and youth groups," Hernandez said. "Just from that, not even teaching them physics, I knew that I wanted to work with that age group."

Prax said she understands that teacher shortages are difficult and that politics are part of the profession.

The passion for teaching, Prax said, would never deter her from teaching, adding: "As long as you, at the end of the day, love teaching and do what you love, the rest of the stuff wouldn't matter."

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. 

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