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Florida Not Immune To National Teacher Shortage Crisis

Jun 27, 2016

Florida is home to some of the country's largest school districts but according to a report from the Florida Department of Education, it doesn't have enough teachers.

That means school districts are coming up with new ways to fill vacancies.

For example, Hillsborough County recently sent recruiters to Puerto Rico to seek out bilingual educators and another ongoing effort is making a pitch to people who never thought about teaching. People like 23-year old Vernon White Jr.

On a recent school day at McLane Middle School in Brandon,  White's 6th grade social studies class should be prepping for a test before heading to lunch.

But most of the students have already checked out. And their teacher isn't having it.

"All these answers are in the book, or there in the handouts which I gave you yesterday. Or you (can) come to me and we'll work on it together," White told the restless students. "Please do not just guess, because you're setting yourself up for failure. I promise you."

Quizzing kids on how well they know the Magna Carta is brand new territory for White. He's been a teacher for just six months and his degree isn't in education. When he went to Florida A & M University in Tallahassee a few years ago, he imagined a career in criminal justice. But he lost interest and moved back home to Brandon to reevaluate. 

He eventually re-enrolled in school, this time to study sociology. He also started volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club in Tallahassee. That was the first time he thought that teaching could be an option.

"The majority of the students were minorities, and just seeing how far behind they were from other 6th graders and other middle-schoolers in that area -- I just realized that me being there, just simply so similar to them, it just meant so much," he said.

As a young African American man, White is the kind of teacher candidate Hillsborough County school recruiters want. The district's 15,000-plus teacher workforce is close to 75 percent white, while its 200,000-plus student population is 55 percent Black or Hispanic.

"We want to make sure we have teachers who represent our student population," said Althea Walker, teacher recruitment manager for Hillsborough County. She says people like White bring life experience and perspective to the classroom.

But that doesn't mean the path to becoming a teacher is easy, she said.

"What you believe you're qualified for is going to look totally different than what people who are in education might view as being qualified," she said.

In other words, raising your own kids or having work experience involving children isn't enough. You'll need a Bachelor's degree and if isn't in education- you'll have to pass three tests to earn a Professional Educator Certificate and take courses required by the Florida Department of Education. 

At a recent teacher recruitment event in Tampa, about 25 people came to find out how to get on the teacher certification track.  They scribbled notes, asked a lot of questions, and came from professional backgrounds ranging from IT to banking.  

"When you look at the national education statistics, possibly about 50 percent of the teaching force are transitioning from another field," said Walker.

One recruiter told the gathering that if they wanted to teach biology or chemistry, she could get them an interview immediately. Another didn't try to sugar coat the very real challenges of teaching.

"It’s not an easy job," the recruiter told the would-be educators. "And you've got a lot going on because you didn't student teach, you don't know our way of work and you will work with kids that come to school with bigger problems than we all have."

While teaching is considered a stable career, it's no secret that morale has plummeted. According to the National Education Association, over 40 percent of new teachers quit within the first five years. And as baby-boomers begin to retire and more students enter Florida's schools, Hillsborough County each year aims to hire 1,000 new teachers.

Neala Kelly thinks she might want to be one of them.

The Tampa native graduated from the University of South Florida with a business management degree, and just spent a year teaching English in Colombia.

"I love a school," she said. "I know it sounds really corny and cliché, but I love school."

If she does decides to pursue education, White, the new teacher in Brandon, had some advice.

"Don't just accept or apply for a job simply because there's a vacancy," he said. "If you don't feel like you can make an impact and if you can't make a connection with these kids- there's truly no point to teaching."

White said teaching isn't about the paycheck: a new teacher in Hillsborough County makes just $38,000 a year. But he gets a different kind of payoff.

Instead, when his students leave at the end of the school day, he said they know that Mr. White has their back.