Breaking the Trend: Academy Tackles Nebraska’s Teacher Shortage Head On
by Jennifer Overkamp
Gresham, Nebraska, native William Wilton is a small-town kid with a big heart. He’s a sophomore at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, majoring in education and planning to be a family and consumer science teacher. He wants to change lives for the better, to inspire his future students just like his teachers inspired him.
“Education is all about preparing students with the skills that they need to succeed,” Wilton said. “For me, teaching Family and Consumer Sciences will give me the opportunity to inspire future students to be successful members of their families and communities through the lessons taught in my classroom.”
Wilton is one of 40 UNL students in the inaugural cohort of the Teacher Scholars Academy, an honors academy for education majors that includes students at three of the four University of Nebraska campuses. He’s also one part of the solution to a big problem: Nebraska’s teacher shortage.
It’s easier to solve a problem than to fix a crisis. The Nebraska teacher shortage is a problem that is slowly, quietly turning into a crisis.
It comes down to math. From 2009 to 2017, the number of K-12 students in Nebraska rose by 8%. Yet, in that same timeframe, the number of college students studying education fell by 48%, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Education. That adds up to a shortage of teachers, especially when combined with the fact that Nebraska, like the rest of the nation, has a problem retaining teachers. The Nebraska Department of Education data also show that 30% of new Nebraska teachers leave the profession within their first six years, most in the first two or three years.
The result of this combination of circumstances is that a gradually increasing number of teaching jobs are filled with teachers who are not fully qualified. This usually means that they have only a provisional license or they lack an endorsement in the needed area. However, the number of positions left vacant is also gradually increasing. From just 12 unfilled teaching jobs across Nebraska in the 2013-2014 school year, the number rose to 36 in 2018-2019.
In 2019, it was 62.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is expected to exacerbate the problem.
“Pre-pandemic, I was certainly concerned about the efforts to recruit and retain teachers in the profession,” said Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, Ph.D. “Post-pandemic, I expect the same attrition trends, but at a more accelerated pace.”
The William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation has long been interested in supporting education. A few years ago, John Scott, vice president of the William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation, and Matt Boyd, assistant vice president with the University of Nebraska Foundation, started discussing a plan to address the teacher shortage. What sealed the deal for Scott was that the plan they created called for a team effort: University of Nebraska administrators, students, faculty on three campuses and donors would all be part of the solution.
Through the University of Nebraska Foundation, the William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation, along with other major donors, joined leadership at UNL, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Nebraska at Omaha to create the Teacher Scholars Academy. This university program provides top undergraduate students studying education with scholarships, professional development opportunities and a cohort experience where scholars move through all four years of their bachelor’s degree within a group of other high-achieving students. Fundraising to support future cohorts is ongoing.
High-achieving students planning to study education apply to the academy before they start their bachelor’s degree. Each year, UNL and UNK choose 40 new scholars, and UNO chooses 24.
Now in its second year, the academy includes more than 200 talented scholars, all eager to make a positive difference through education. They attend regular education classes and a few academy-only classes.
“The Teacher Scholars Academy is much more than just an honors academy for education majors,” said Braden Foreman, coordinator of UNL’s Teacher Scholars Academy. “It tackles the teacher shortage head on, taking strategic, practical steps to recruit the right students and then give them the financial, professional and personal support to excel and lead. The goal is to help mold future teachers who are really effective.”
The academy is specifically focused on addressing the overall issue of the workforce shortage in education by meeting a number of key challenges.
CHALLENGE: Student loan debt and its impact on students’ career choices.
STRATEGY: The academy offers full-tuition scholarships and a generous stipend for room and board to every scholar for all four years of their degree.
Scott best summed up the importance of this strategy, saying, “When you’re trying to recruit kids of the caliber that we’re trying to get, you’re looking at kids who could easily choose a different career path with the potential to make more money. The reality is that student debt plays a big role. We’re trying to remove the financial obstacles that could potentially get in the way of kids choosing education as a career path.”
UNO scholar Alexandra Espinoza said the scholarship was “a huge relief.” She’s preparing for her dream job of teaching high school Spanish and English, a job where she knows her outsized enthusiasm isn’t going to be matched with a correspondingly big paycheck.
“I’m really excited that I’m going to be teaching!” Espinoza said. “But it’s also not a high salary job, and I would have had thousands in debt. The scholarship was definitely a true blessing. It took away the stress.”
CHALLENGE: Ensuring the most talented, passionate future teachers have the best possible training.
STRATEGY: The academy recruits top students, considering not only grades and test scores but also community service, leadership and enthusiasm for teaching, with an eye toward increasing diversity in education as well. Along with a typical application process, aspiring scholars are required to create an introductory video and are interviewed by the selection committee.
In addition to their regular classes, first-year scholars meet regularly for professional development seminars. Topics have included Gallup’s CliftonStrengths, education resumes, diversity, mental health and well-being, leadership, conflict resolution and presentation skills.
Community service or service learning is also central to the academy and helps scholars further develop the skills they are learning. Scholars have helped a variety of community organizations, doing everything from promoting literacy, mentoring at-risk youth and reducing the misuse of prescription drugs to supporting musicians with special needs. Their work in local schools has included crafting customized, at-home activities for struggling distance-learning grade-school students.
For early childhood education major Kylie Miller, who chose UNK after falling in love with the small campus community, her service learning opportunity added to her education in more ways than one.
“Our spring semester requires 20 hours of service learning, but it kind of doesn’t feel like service learning at all, especially because we get to work with kids,” Miller said with a big smile. Miller volunteered as a tutor with the America Reads program, and that’s where she realized she wanted to teach English as a second language. She said, “I was able to work within an ESL classroom, and I absolutely fell in love with it.”
CHALLENGE: Keeping new teachers in the classroom, especially during those first years that are typically the most difficult.
STRATEGY: Academy scholars graduate with not only a strong education but also a strong support network. The academy creates close-knit cohorts of students who attend seminars and some classes together and come together for community service and team-building activities.
A dedicated coordinator on each campus pulls it all together, serving as mentor, facilitator and organizer, connecting scholars with schools, professional opportunities and each other. At UNL, academy students share the same dorm floor for the first year.
Wilton, Espinoza and Miller all emphasized the value of the strong community within the academy. Their cohort is where they’ve found their closest friends, even their roommates in Miller’s case. It’s where they go for encouragement and studying help. They know they can rely on those bonds after they graduate.
“I can definitely see that we’ll all be standing strong together within the teaching community after we graduate, because we all have one another,” said Miller. “It’s just a great community of support,” Espinoza said. “It feels like a family.”
The Teacher Scholars Academy started in the fall of 2019 and added its second cohort fall of 2020. In terms of the big picture, its founders won’t know if it works for another 10 years, when academy graduates are in their classrooms, and they are able to see if their success, including their retention in the field, is greater than their peers. Big problems don’t always have quick fixes.
“It’s big and broad, but you’ve got to take steps, right?” Scott said. “You can’t be intimidated by the magnitude of the problem.”
Scott said the William & Ruth Scott Foundation chose to invest in the Teacher Scholars Academy because of a core belief in the value of education.
He quoted his mother, Ruth Scott — a former teacher — as saying, “Being a good teacher and a good parent are two of the most important professions on the planet. Impacting the lives of children brings an indescribable sense of fulfillment.”
Scott said that his family’s work with the academy has been “as satisfying as anything we’ve ever done.” He added, “We’ve gotten the same feedback from our peers in the community who have joined us in this investment.”
Wilton also sees the donors’ gifts as investments for which he and his peers are truly grateful.
“I see the donors’ investment in me and in future educators as truly not just an investment in me. It’s an investment in every student who will walk into my classroom, someday in the future,” Wilton said.
Wilton noted that this investment is multiplied by all of the academy’s scholars on all three campuses and all of the students they will teach throughout their careers, leading to an impact that is hard to count or even put into words.
“When we are able to positively impact one student,” he said, “they’re going to positively impact their family and their peers and the other people around them whom we might not be able to teach. And I’m really thankful for the donors for the experience from the Teacher Scholars Academy, and, for some of us, the gift to make college a reality, and to be able to go on and make the difference that we want to make.”