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TEKOLSTE: Teacher shortage is a civil rights issue

February 9, 2018

tekolste-sarah-mug.jpgI could tell something was off when Isabela didn’t greet me. She shuffled quietly past, grabbed her materials from the back table, and put her head down on her desk. “I am just so sick of it,” she said, her voice cracking as she lost her cool for the first time since I’d met her. “How am I supposed to learn when we don’t have teachers in our classes?”

Isabela was an impeccable student at the top of her class. She was determined to go to college—an opportunity her mother had not had in Mexico and so desperately wanted for her. It broke my heart to know she had substitutes instead of teachers for three of her seven classes.

Isabela’s story is not uncommon; the teacher shortage is a reality for many students in both rural and urban areas of Indiana. Nationally, Indiana ranks among the bottom five states for teacher recruitment and retention. More than 130 of the 141 school districts in our state report facing a teacher shortage this year, and 23 percent of school districts, including mine, rely on full-time substitutes to cope with this shortage. This deficit is especially prominent in special education, math, science and bilingual education, and poor urban and rural school districts are most severely affected. As a result, the teacher shortage disproportionately hurts low-income students and students of color, like Isabela. This makes it a civil rights issue.

Access to qualified teachers is an essential component to building equality of opportunity in our public schools, and the teacher shortage is a direct barrier to equity in our state. Indiana has taken some steps, like the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, to encourage high-performing students to enter the teaching profession and work in low-income schools. As a result of this scholarship, it has been heartening to see some of our top students go on to college to pursue a future in education. This program has been a crucial first step to addressing the teacher-recruitment crisis, but it will not be enough.

Scholarships might help address teacher recruitment, but they will not be enough to solve the teacher-retention crisis in the long run in Indiana. After 2-1/2 years working at a high-need school on the south side of Indianapolis, I understand why many educators cannot view teaching in under-resourced schools as a sustainable career path. I love my students and I love my job, but I could easily have a higher salary and better working conditions and benefits if I were to move to a high-performing school in the suburbs or leave the state. The system is rigged against students like Isabela.

Indiana cannot only motivate high-performing college graduates to enter the teaching profession and work in high-need schools; we must also strive to ensure that quality teachers stay in their schools by compensating them for their expertise and including them at the table where education policies are made.

Our legislators must act urgently and purposefully to provide incentives for high-performing individuals to become teachers and to stay in low-income urban and rural schools. Teachers like me, including my cohort of the Teach Plus Indianapolis Teaching Policy Fellowship, want to work with legislators to make teaching a sustainable option for these young professionals.

We must do better in recruiting and retaining high-performing teachers to meet our potential for student-achievement gains as a state. All students, including Isabela and her classmates, deserve this.•

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TeKolste teaches upper-level Spanish at Emmerich Manual High School. She is a Teach Plus Indianapolis Teaching Policy Fellow.

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