By Thalia Vega
This fall, nearly 55.4 million K-12th grade students in the U.S. returned to school. Missing from their classrooms? At least 55,000 teachers, according to new data published by Dr. Tuan Nguyen, a Kansas State University education professor.
In Pennsylvania, we’re not immune to this crisis. Penn State’s Center for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis confirms that Pennsylvania teachers are rapidly leaving the profession. In 2022-23 alone, nearly 9,600 teachers left their jobs. That’s almost double the number of people who became certified teachers in Pennsylvania in 2022.
The numbers can be overwhelming, but it’s the implications for children that are heartbreaking. Without question, teachers are the most critical factor of student learning. They spark the natural curiosity of young minds. They are role models and cheerleaders, motivating students to see their potential and find self-confidence when their effort meets achievement. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my teachers.
Beginning in 10th grade, I attended Milton Hershey School, a private school where students from lower-income families live on campus. My childhood involved things I wish no other child had to experience – homelessness, hunger and a front seat to abuse. Before Hershey, I attended 13 different schools. MHS gave me the comforts of a stable home and a first-rate education for free. I was surrounded by adults who encouraged me to chart a course for the future and helped me figure out how to get there.
Some of the most influential players? My teachers. They knew my situation and made sure I never gave up, especially when I was struggling.
With a scholarship from MHS, I attended Arcadia University. It was there I began seriously considering the education field. I wanted to pay it forward and become the difference maker others were for me. During the pandemic, I helped my younger siblings take virtual classes while doing the same. I saw firsthand the critical need for and benefit of skilled teachers in the classroom. I changed my major and in May, I earned my bachelor’s degree in early education, becoming the first college grad in my family.
It’s bittersweet that I’m embarking on a teaching career as so many others leave. Whitney Houston famously sang, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” But I ask, how do we expect them to one day lead if there is no one to teach them?
We have a problem, and it can’t be fixed with well wishes. We need concrete plans to remedy the teacher shortage and create a pipeline. For all students, but especially those in circumstances like mine, teacher turnover is a huge obstacle to learning. In contrast, an invested, qualified and engaging teacher can be a life-changer for a kid.
So, what can be done? One strategy is preparation. Not just prepping teachers for what they will experience in the classroom, but a long-term solution that starts far earlier by exposing students of all ages to education careers. It is called career-focused education and it allows students, through classwork, internships, pre-apprenticeships and more, to become familiar with the expectations of different careers so they can decide if a profession matches their interests and skills.
Today’s career and technical education programs use this approach to combine academic and technical skills with the knowledge and training young people need to succeed in today’s job market. While career paths like carpentry (also highly in demand right now) still exist, more need to be added to broaden the benefits to students and employers alike. Education is one of these must-add paths.
I’m proud to say my high school alma mater is doing its part. Milton Hershey School’s more than 100-year-old CTE program is constantly evolving to embrace industry needs, tech and new learning experiences. In 2019, MHS added Education and Human Services as its 12th career path to help fill the growing need for qualified educators while connecting students to in-demand careers with family-sustaining wages.
MHS students in this program explore education, social work and counseling careers. They hear from experts, shadow in the elementary school and participate in internships. As the first Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning locations open, MHS students will have even more opportunities to learn from the professionals there while working with children. In the future, these students will have the potential to earn early childhood education credentials before graduating high school, preparing them to thrive when continuing their education or entering the workforce.
In early 2023, the state Department of Education announced that incorporating education careers into CTE programs, like MHS has already done, will be a priority for all Pa. schools. It’s a positive step in creating a long-term pipeline of qualified teachers in our state. For schools wondering how to launch or evolve a career pathway, I recommend looking no further than Milton Hershey School for the method and inspiration … and get ready to change lives. ••
Thalia Vega is a teacher at Lindley Academy Charter School, 9th Street and Lindley Avenue. She is a graduate of Arcadia University ’23 and Milton Hershey School ’19.