When Lindsey Decker began studying early-childhood education in the fall of 2016, she expected to encounter challenges in the classroom: recognizing when a student didn’t grasp a concept, intervening in arguments between classmates, or redirecting children whose minds wander off-task.
She didn’t anticipate managing any of this in a virtual classroom.
But as she began her semester-long student-teaching assignment last fall, Decker greeted 15 1st-grade students at Boston’s Baldwin Early Learning Pilot Academy via computer screen, where they remained from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every school day, save for stretching and lunch breaks.
“We improvised. In the process, we [student teachers] were teaching the teachers,” said Decker, who graduates next month from Boston University with a master’s in early-childhood education and hopes to land a teaching job for the 2021–22 school year.
Decker and thousands of other new teacher candidates find themselves in a recruiting season that, like the school year itself, is marred by uncertainty and upheaval. Many school districts still haven’t solidified their hiring needs, as they’re tied up with figuring outstudent enrollment numbers—which, nationwide, have dropped during the pandemic, especially in the early grades. If demand continues for remote learning options, some districts may hire two sets of teachers: virtual and in-person.
Other complicating factors include a pre-existing teacher shortage in some regions, exacerbated during the pandemic by an accelerated exodus from the profession, according to a Rand Corporation survey of former public school teachers.
In this scenario, some see opportunity for first-time teachers.
“Because there’s so much change, now is the best time to go into the field,” said Jacob Easley II, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Touro College in New York City.
A good time to get into teaching
Easley says the pandemic inadvertently illuminated the need for changes in education— from more equitable access to resources (i.e. technology and internet access) to a greater focus on students’ general wellness. “Right now we are high on innovation,” he said.
For some teachers, the pandemic has presented more struggles than opportunities to innovate.
“I believe the pandemic has allowed our staff to really evaluate what’s really important to them,” said Rodney Lewis, assistant superintendent of human resources for the City of St. Charles school district in St. Charles, Mo. Subsequently, some teachers have taken a leave of absence or quit.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” Lewis said. “You don’t want someone in the classroom whose heart’s not in it.”
It also makes room for new teachers.
Jason Rainey, executive director of human resources for the Denton Independent School District in Denton, Texas, said his district of about 35,000 students is on pace to hire between 200 and 250 teachers—as many or slightly more than in a typical school year. And he won’t shy away from hiring first-year teachers, he says, as long as they have what he’s looking for.
“We want teachers with grit—those who can face challenges, remain constant and be a force for their students,” Rainey said.
Job seekers may need to be more proactive
It may take grit to find—and land—teaching jobs this hiring season.
“I think the challenge will be where to go to find a job. If the colleges are not doing the virtual recruitment fairs or traditional fairs as they did in the past, candidates might need to go directly to districts,” said Kelly Coash-Johnson, executive director at the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, who says there are fewer career fairs this year compared to pre-pandemic recruiting seasons.
Decker, who’s currently in the job market, says she’s not aware of any job fairs being hosted by school districts where she’s seeking opportunities or through Boston University’s school of education.
Consequently, job seekers with prior connections to school districts may be at a distinct advantage this year.
That was the case with Sarah Giramia.
Currently working as a long-term substitute for the Kalamazoo school district in Michigan, she graduated from Western Michigan University in December 2020 with a degree in secondary education and teaching and recently secured a permanent spot as a middle school language arts teacher with the district for the 2021–22 school year.
Giramia earned a scholarship as part of an initiative to develop a pipeline of teachers of color, a program that also gave her hands-on opportunities within the district from the onset of her college education.
“If I hadn’t had that, I think I’d be struggling to find a job,” Giramia said.
School culture, supports for new teachers matter to job seekers
Even in this uncertain job market, experts urge first-time teaching candidates not to lose sight of their priorities and looking for a school where they believe they can grow and thrive.
“You need to feel like what you’ll receive from the school will be a value-add for your career,” said Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice president of research, policy, and advocacy at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Rodriguez encourages job candidates to research schools’ culture and norms and learn about the support they provide to their teachers and students.
Denton ISD’s Rainey says that, even prior to the pandemic, he began to see a shift in teaching candidates’ inquiries in this direction.
“I don’t have anyone ask me about salary any more,” said Rainey, who notes that most large districts in the area offer comparable compensation. “They want to know: How are they going to be supported? What are we going to do to mentor them? What opportunities are there for growth?”