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This story was produced by Arkansas Public Media and is reprinted with permission.
Davida Walls never thought she would be teaching high school biology, let alone in the first few months after graduating from college at 22.
“Teaching was not my initial goal. It was kind of an opportunity that just, you know, became available so I took it.”
She is trying to decide whether to become a doctor or a nurse, and plans to apply for a program to train for one or the other this year.
She got the job teaching at Helena West-Helena School District’s Central High School because the school’s assistant principal, an acquaintance from her hometown in Mississippi, knew she was graduating.
“We may pick a person like Ms. Walls who is awesome, you know, who knows her content, who has a good rapport with students, who is learning how to get that information over to the students so they can understand what’s happening in biology,” says Central High School Assistant Principal Courtney Jackson.
“But at the end of the day, in back of her mind, she still has ambitions and goals to become a doctor or a nurse,” she says.
Starting this year in Arkansas, anyone with a bachelor’s degree can become a teacher in districts that have requested a waiver of teacher certification. Licensure, or certification, requires passing coursework and a series of state level subject area exams. It is just one of a slate of waivers approved by lawmakers, including class size, teacher preparation time, hiring and firing rules, and others, allowing traditional public schools to operate with the same educational requirements as their area charter schools.
The licensure waivers are in part a response to a dramatic drop in the number of Arkansans interested in becoming teachers through existing pathways. In the last three years, the total number of aspiring teachers enrolled in any kind of preparatory program in the state has dropped by half.
In 2013, 7,758 were enrolled, and in 2016 that number fell to 3,944.
Arkansas Public Media found that 23 districts are using non-certified teachers this year. Slightly less than half of districts are employing non-certified teachers in core subject areas while the others work in computer science, art, music, mechanics, career readiness, health, or other fields. Some districts have hired as few as one or two non-certified teachers. Helena-West Helena is employing the most — 15.
Low pay is one reason many are disinterested in the profession. Starting salaries for teachers in Arkansas range from $30,122 to $46,816.
“We have to take people as we can get them. We just have to groom people to become teachers now. Because everybody is just not choosing this as a profession. For many reasons, you know, pay being one,” says Jackson.
Karen Eoff is the Education Director for the South East regional co-op. Her member districts applied for the waiver as a group, she says, after exhausting hiring searches that turned up few interested and qualified candidates.
“I would hire every qualified licensed teacher, our schools would, that we could find. The problem is we can’t find them in our area. We can’t get them to move,” Eoff said.
Eoff says the University of Arkansas at Monticello is a primary training ground for teachers in her region, though its number of student teaching interns has dropped along with other areas of the state in recent years. In 2011-2012, the university had 52 teaching interns. This year there may be as few as 19.
She says retaining teachers is as much a problem as attracting them if not more so because the decline of manufacturing jobs in her area has created a downward economic spiral, and teachers want to live where their spouses can find jobs.
Larger issues common to declining rural towns exacerbate the problem, such as dwindling tax revenues. Helena West-Helena was taken out of state control this year for fiscal distress. Recently, the district tried to infuse some energy into its schools with a millage vote for new facilities this month. It failed, albeit by a small margin.
District Superintendent John Hoy says the reality is when area students graduate from colleges in urban centers, they’ve already developed new expectations and affinities.
“One of the things I’ve heard is that there’s no movie in town. ‘Do I really want to come to a district where I’m not going to have access to the same opportunities I would have in a larger city?’” he said. “They have to decide if they want to go back to where the opportunities are not as great as in the cities they’ve gotten used to.”
But rural districts aren’t the only problem. The trend away from teaching in Arkansas is part of a nationwide shift away from the teaching profession. According to U.S. Department of Education data from 2015, since the 2008-2009 school year there’s been a 30 percent drop in enrollment nationwide: 75 percent of enrollees in traditional programs are white, 11 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent black.
BACK IN THE DELTA
In a morning biology class, Walls leans over her desk quizzing students about the parts of the cell. A self-described over-achiever, getting her students interested in learning has been an unexpected challenge.
Turns out they don’t just love science like she does.
“It’s kind of hard to please this age group,” she says.
And so far, she says, the students’ grades show they’re not quite with her.
“I have incorporated videos. I’ve done demos before. We’ve done labs. So I tried to incorporate technology and hands on things, but it seems even when I do that they’re still bored.”
The kids shout things at each other around the room. She doesn’t command the authority and discipline she imagined.
“By me being so young, they expect me to be so lenient with them. And they expect me to be cool with them and their friend. But I have to remind them that I can play with you all sometimes and be friends sometimes, but generally I’m your teacher, so I can’t be my normal 22-year-old self with you.”
They go over homework the students struggled with. “We had homework?” some students ask.
She quizzes them on the difference between a prokaryotic and a eukaryotic cell, all the while urging them to stop talking. Analogies to real life are her way of making material relatable.
The “Gogi apparatus is like the mailman of the cell,” because it sends out packages.
“Do we know of any other systems in our body?”
“No. There’s not a solar system. We don’t have that.”
The first year of teaching is notoriously hard, but what Walls wasn’t expecting from her gap year was the long days and nights of grading. She says she goes home to about five hours of work in the evening.
Walls has been doing intensive teacher trainings along with other non-certified teachers at her school since she started. She says her mother is a lifelong teacher; she feels prepared for the challenge of learning how to teach, even during the short period she plans to be in front of students.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION TRIES TO HELP
At an evening informational session at district headquarters, Arkansas Department of Education staff talk to a room full of about 15 newly hired non certified teachers about how to become credentialed for a career in education.
Pathways to certification offered in the state include traditional university-based degree programs, Teach for America, Arkansas Teacher Corp., and a Provisional Professional Teaching License among others.
Informing non-certified teachers of their options is part of a strategy for training local residents, like new Central High School 8th and 9th grade social studies teacher Tiffany Gant. She is teaching this year to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a head volleyball coach at the high school.
“I coached volleyball under USA Volleyball club in Dallas. I was a DJ and a barista at Starbucks.”
She isn’t required to get certified under the waiver but says she wants to for job security and because she isn’t so sure about her teaching skills. She is 35, and this wasn’t exactly her plan.
“My degree is in psychology but I’m teaching history! I know it’s all in the same branch but,” she says, laughing, “I’m studying it and teaching it. I’m glad I’m teaching 8th graders and not 12th because they might catch on to, ‘Oh, I just studied it a week ago.’”
Gant, like her younger colleague, works around the clock, learning her subject matter and thinking of how to teach it. She uses the New York Times lesson guides, the U.S. Constitution, and quizzes to teach civics.
“Doing lesson plans, tracking learning and engagement is not as easy as I thought it would be. Because I like to learn, but everyone is not that way. And so it’s just the challenge of engaging every person in the classroom for the better part of the period. And that’s what was so tough.”
ON EDUCATING EDUCATORS
What sets Tiffany Gant’s experience apart is she lives in one of the only states in the country where she is qualified to teach in public school. To her way of thinking, that’s because her district’s administrators were willing to take a risk, one she’s grateful for.
The 2015 waivers law was sponsored by Marianna area Democratic Representative Reginald Murdock to help traditional public schools compete with charters, which have fewer restrictions.
He says he thinks non-certified teachers can be as effective as those who’ve been through formal training, and that’s already the standard allowed for charters in the state.
“If the state of Arkansas has already authorized charter schools as being a model that was determined, deemed to be acceptable and good for students then it’s good for all students, wouldn’t you agree? So it’s not me making the assertion or me watering down. The charter school model that allows for those flexibilities you just detailed is already in place.”
Murdock says KIPP Delta Public Schools in his region and that of the Helena West-Helena area have data to prove their model is a success.
But Arkansas Education Association President Brenda Robinson says the regulations placed on charters were determined by the legislature, and aren’t good practice. She says teacher preparatory programs and certification are necessary for strong schools.
“It affects teaching quality. Once you go through the teacher ed program, you’re prepped how to teach. You’re taught really about cultural competencies. You’re taught about discipline. You really hone in on your content area,” she says. “It’s literally that you’re ready to go before children.”
She adds that the waivers actually set more lenient standards for traditional public schools than charters because the charters must renew their standards every five years at the State Board of Education while public school waivers are given for an indefinite duration.
Robinson says the lasting solution is for the state to approve financial incentives for teachers to work in struggling regions.
State Board of Education member Jay Barth has also been critical of waivers. He says he is in support of re-evaluating teacher training pathways but is concerned about dropping certification requirements wholesale.
“I worry in some ways that this is a process that allows us to give up on the very real crisis that is present by saying we’re simply going to allow folks to come into the classroom without going through traditional processes,” he says.
Arkansas lawmakers say they would like to increase teacher pay in the state but haven’t been able to, and some question why funds allocated for teacher pay have in the past gone to fund other needs in struggling districts.
This fall the General Assembly’s Education Committee was unable to agree on a compromise for education-related recommendations for the state budget. The governor plans to cut taxes this year though by law education spending is required to be set before that.
Murdock says in the 2017 legislative session he will push to tighten the language of the waivers law to give the State Board of Education less influence in its implementation. The state is largely an outlier in this. Nevada, like Arkansas, has recently created a waiver for certification, while neighboring Southern state, Georgia, has moved to strengthen hiring requirements for teachers.