At Virginia Commonwealth University, a group of students earning their master's in education have already spent a busy day student teaching. This evening they’re in a class of their own, practicing new lesson plans.
Chris Dematteo and Oonagh Krebs will both graduate this May. They’re not teachers yet, but they’ve already experienced some stigma against the profession.
“It’s not just a seven hour school day. It’s the after school programs. It’s the 20 hours a week of lesson planning and unit planning, and grading,” describes Dematteo with a sigh. “We need to be treated like professionals. It’s a societal issue.”
“We’re seen as glorified babysitters. When in reality a babysitter gets paid more than us an hour,” chimes in Krebs.
They’re both worried lower expectations for teachers could mean even less respect.
At the same time, Virginia is facing a critical shortage of teachers and one of the ways lawmakers in Richmond are trying to tackle that problem is pushing colleges and universities to create four year teaching programs, instead of the more traditional five or six years.
“We want this taken seriously and we want the four year option promoted,” said Democratic Senator Barbara Favola.
Favola sponsored a bill this year that passed both chambers and is waiting for the Governor’s signature to become law. It directs the Department of Education to create guidelines for four-year teaching programs.
Some colleges in Virginia already have programs that short, but lawmakers like Favola want more.
“Folks who want to teach in elementary school or middle school, where there’s not as heavy a content requirement, could really get through in four years -- have their teacher practicum in four years and be ready to go into the classroom,” said Favola.
According to the National Education Association the average starting salary for a teacher in Virginia is about $39,000. Favola recognizes that salary is an issue, but sees the four-year push as a way to reduce the debt load on teachers. Lawmakers haven't decided yet whether to give teachers a 2-percent raise in the next state budget.
But they have decided on a number of other approaches to address the teacher shortage, including making it easier for teachers to get and keep a license.
Republican Senator Mark Peake says it’s important not to discourage people who want to teach, but don’t have the educational requirements -- especially in tough to fill jobs, in rural parts of the state.
“When (a teacher) knows a subject backwards and forwards, and knows how to teach it, and the kids love them. And the principals know it. And the superintendents know it. If they want them, let ‘em, have ‘em,” said Peake.
But Gabriel Reich, a professor in VCU's School of Education, thinks it’s a move in the wrong direction. While he recognizes that the teacher shortage is a real problem, he thinks it’s a symptom of something larger.
“We’ve divested from schools, we have de-professionalized teaching and we haven’t kept up teachers wages with inflation. All those three things are leading to teachers leaving the classroom,” said Reich.
Reich fears making it easier to become a teacher could actually make those problems worse. He predicts that in a shorter degree program, the first thing dropped will be content knowledge.
“If teachers have less background in their content, they’re less authorities, and basically what it’s saying is - anyone can teach,” Reich said. “What does that say to our children?”
In addition to promoting four year programs, lawmakers have also removed some of the requirements of a teaching license, and given localities more flexibility in extending provisional licenses.
Those measures are all waiting for a signature from the Governor.