Meredith Fenimore has always been passionate about working with kids.
Over the summer, she taught children how to play tennis. As part of her National Honor Society community service hours, she’s volunteered at the Terre Haute Children's Museum.
This fall, the Terre Haute North Vigo High School 2018 graduate will major in elementary education at Indiana State University. She views teaching as an important, but perhaps undervalued, profession.“The education of children is the future of our country,” Fenimore said. “They will be our future leaders.”
Those future leaders need good teachers, said Fenimore, who at one point considered pediatric dentistry as a career choice.
Fenimore is one of 200 recipients of a new state scholarship program aimed at recruiting high-achieving high school and college students into teaching. Now in its second year, the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship provides recipients renewable scholarships of up to $7,500 each year for four academic years, or $30,000 total.
In exchange, students agree to teach for five years at an eligible Indiana school or repay the corresponding, prorated amount of the scholarship. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education announced the second class of recipients in May.
To qualify, students had to either graduate in the highest 20 percent of their high school class or earn a score in the top 20th percentile on the SAT or ACT tests.
To continue earning the scholarship in college, students must earn a 3.0 cumulative GPA and complete at least 30 credit hours per year. The process is competitive, and 510 students applied; academic and other factors are considered.
“It was a big deal to me. I knew it was one I wanted to go for,” said Fenimore, who did a lot of research on available scholarships.
While Indiana’s — and the nation’s — teacher shortage has been well-documented, Fenimore and others defy the trend. “I’m so glad I found it would be my calling,” she said. She believes it’s a career in which “I’ll wake up every day and look forward to going” to her classroom.
But she does have some thoughts on why more of her peers don’t want to teach. “I do think a lot of it comes from how underpaid teachers are. They are not paid what they are worth,” Fenimore said.
They not only educate children, they become mentors and role models to students and can become an especially important influence in cases where parents are absent from their children’s live, she said.
Lack of pay sends a message teaching is not viewed as important, she said. But it’s not a deterrent for her. “It will be rewarding in every other way,” she said.
NO SINGLE ANSWER
Terry McDaniel, Indiana State University professor of educational leadership, said the state scholarship program provides a good incentive, although it’s too early to know what kind of difference the program will make. He’s studied the teacher shortage in Indiana, and says that recruiting new teachers is just one part of the solution.
Another part is retaining those new teachers; one study indicated 17 percent of teachers will leave the profession within the first five years, he said.
Keeping more experienced educators on the teaching roster also is important. “So many are opting for early retirement because they are burned out or ready to step down,” McDaniel said.
He’s studied Indiana’s teacher shortage for the past three years and doesn’t see any let-up. A mid-September survey of Indiana school superintendents showed that 94 percent were reporting a teacher shortage in their districts, and special education continued to be the area of greatest need.
“The teacher shortage is real and we continue to see the proof,” McDaniel said in an interview last fall. Of 141 district superintendents responding, 94 percent indicated they had a teacher shortage, with 69 percent reporting a shortage in special education, an increase of 10 points since 2015. Science and math were other areas with shortages, with 57 percent of superintendents reporting shortages in those areas.
Mick Newport, Vigo County School Corp. human resources director, recently expressed grounds for optimism after a strong turnout at an annual interviewing/screening process to fill teacher vacancies for 2018-19.
The screening took place June 4, after the school year had just concluded. District principals interviewed 115 applicants, and at that point the district had posted 50 vacancies; some hiring had already taken place for difficult- to-fill positions.
Newport found the numbers “really encouraging. That tells me the education pendulum is swinging the other direction. Three years ago, we only had 50 or 60” as compared to this year’s 115, he said on June 4.
Some of this year’s applicants were recent college graduates from Indiana State University or Saint Mary-of- the-Woods College, while others were experienced teachers. Some will be moving to Terre Haute and are looking for a teaching job; they include applicants from New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and throughout Indiana.
On June 18, Newport said he had screened another 20 people seeking teaching jobs. “I still feel very positive. We’ve had several good applicants. Obviously, we’ve had some we’re not totally impressed with.”
A HIGH PRIORITY
The Indiana Department of Education has made the teacher shortage a high priority and has taken several steps in response, said Adam Baker, press secretary.
Two new websites, EducateIN.org and Indiana.teachers-teachers.com, help connect applicants to available openings, and future teachers can create profiles and apply for jobs. EducateIN. org also serves as a resource hub for prospective teachers to explore the benefits of the education profession and to access information about various licensure pathways.
To help improve retention, the IDOE conducted a survey of teachers, the “Your Voice Matters Survey,” that drew 30,000 responses. It also has conducted regional focus groups and a Teach to Lead Summit.
The teacher survey closed June 15, and the department is “excited” about the response, Baker said. “From what we can tell, this is the first time we’ve done something of this nature on this scale,” he said. The 30,000 represents about half of Indiana public school teachers.
As the department develops and suggests new policies, it wanted to “talk to the boots on the ground, those who teach in the classroom,” he said. The survey will give the state department an idea of what teachers are dealing with, what would help them remain in the profession and what attracted new teachers to the field.
Once responses are compiled, the goal is to use the information to help drive policy, he said. “It will give us a good sense of what is going on in the field,” he said.