By Dr. Tonya Drake, chancellor and regional vice president of Western Governors University, and Dr. Mark David Milliron, senior vice president of Western Governors University and executive dean of the School of Education.
The start of the school year is usually met with feelings of excitement as students and teachers reconnect and reimagine their routines. However, this anticipation runs parallel with some discouraging professional challenges that aren’t unique to school districts in Washington State.
According to a recent National Education Association (NEA) survey, an alarming 55% of educators indicate they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned. However, the number of teachers employed in Washington public schools only went from 63,072 in the 2019–20 school year to 62,791 in the 2020–21 school year, according to the NEA. That is a decrease of less than 1%.
States have been lacking teachers in certain areas for decades. In Washington, the most common shortages are in special education, career and technical education, and advanced science and math focuses. The number one teacher role experiencing staffing shortages in 2021 was elementary education, followed by special education. (The state has had a teacher shortage in special education going back more than 30 years, according to the US Department of Education data.)
Regardless of these challenges, students will return to classrooms and teachers will be tasked with shaping the next generation of Washington's workforce. Educators just like you undoubtedly leave a profound impact on our young learners. In addition, we must ensure we continue to do everything we can to not only encourage others to consider this career path but also stay in the field year after year.
It’s no secret that this profession can be taxing. With the proper tools and tactics, though, you can take the necessary steps to care for yourself throughout this next year and ensure that you’re reenergized to continue molding Washington’s future leaders.
Prioritize being a difference-maker. According to a Varkey Foundation survey published by the World Economic Forum, teaching is among the world’s most respected professions. This acknowledgement stems from your positive influence over students and colleagues – an impact that lasts forever. Own this potential ability. Embrace it. Encourage it in your colleagues. It may sound trite, but it is more than true: your smallest act can make the biggest of differences in the students you teach and reach.
Choose to connect and collaborate. Though you may encounter challenges and changes throughout your career, one thing is certain: you are never alone. Just by entering the teaching profession, you are forever allied with educators from many disciplines with whom you can connect and collaborate. You are part of a community in which influential bonds with students shape their futures. The WGU Learning Community helps teachers keep up to date on the latest in higher education.
Choose to thrive. As a new educator, you have chosen a path paved with endless possibilities to make a tremendous impact. The importance of your work has never been greater. Appreciating your value as an educator will help you understand the unique situations of the students that you teach. However, you need to remember to do this good work in a good way. Social-emotional learning, for example, is an important component of our Teachers College’s curriculum, and what works for students can also work for teachers. In short, stay healthy — mentally and physically — and keep learning. Your health, wellness and continued professional growth can be a bulwark against the many challenges that will come your way.
Whether you’re a paraprofessional, a classroom aide, an aspiring teacher or a working professional ready to make the switch to a more meaningful career in the classroom, check out WGU’s Teacher College scholarships. We’re here to surround our teachers with the support they need to ensure a successful new year.
While the education landscape has certainly changed — and will continue to evolve — you are educators for a reason. Many crucial decisions led you to this moment, and you have the passion and the power to change lives. Your talent and vision are a vital part of this. Never forget how important you are to so many, and never forget the power of your choices.