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For all the challenges she faced in getting to her first day as a teacher, Kora Snavely could feel any nerves or anxiety melt away when her 20 students filtered into her classroom for the first day of second grade at Meadowlark Elementary in Andover.
Snavely, who graduated college in May, wanted to lead her own classroom for years. But teachers in high school warned her against getting into such a demanding profession.
She looked for other career options when she got to college but nothing seemed as fulfilling, so she returned to pursuing a teaching degree.
“People discourage you from being in the teaching profession because it’s a lot of work for not a lot of money,” Snavely said. “But who cares? If you can do it and be happy, then do it.”
As the new school year starts, hundreds of first-year teachers in Kansas are starting careers that will be defined by the pandemic and post-pandemic education landscape.
Keeping those teachers on the job is the challenge for schools.
Kansas teacher shortages
Even before COVID-19, Kansas had been reckoning with teacher retention and shortage issues. Historically, about 7% of all Kansas teachers, year-over-year, leave the profession.
Although that’s slightly better than the national average of 8%, some estimates suggest those figures could creep into the double digits as more educators find themselves fed up with teaching in a pandemic, said Tuan Nguyen, a Kansas State University professor and education labor researcher.
Beside teacher retention, Kansas is also facing a teacher induction issue. Compared to 2014, the Kansas State Department of Education issued nearly 1,000 fewer licenses for newly graduated Kansas teachers or out-of-state transfers in 2020.
However, preliminary figures indicate that new teacher licenses may hit a four-year high this year, said Mischel Miller, director of teacher licensure and accreditation at the state Department of Education. The next few months, and the final counts in October, will give a more complete forecast for any staffing challenges Kansas schools will face in the coming years, she said.
“It’s good to know that those initial license numbers have come up, but I think we’re at the beginnings of a real dangerous crisis shortage for our teaching staff that’s going to require our districts to think differently about how they deliver content to students with the number of people that they have,” Miller said.
While the teaching has historically been seen as a stable career choice, Nguyen said the pandemic has eroded the public’s respect for the profession.
“What would motivate people to want to be teachers now when the salary is stagnant, when there’s a lot of tension between themselves and the public, and when there’s still a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19?” he said.
First-year mentoring programs for Kansas teachers
Starting in 2008, first-year teachers in Kansas have been matched with an experienced mentor at their schools. The state Education Department funds $1,000 stipends for educators who volunteer to mentor newer counterparts during their first year on the job.
Teacher retention rates skyrocketed, and when they began slipping again in the mid-2010s, the department began funding a second year of mentorship, starting in 2017.
“Thirty-five years ago, it might have been someone showing you where the copier was or where the coffee machine is, or where to park or get your keys and mail,” Miller said. “But now we’ve deepened that with shared partnerships — with how to reach difficult kids and how to maneuver, engage and communicate with families better.”
‘Unwritten rules’ of teaching
Ahead of the start of the school year at Meadowlark, Snavely — the only first-year teacher at the school — met with her mentor, Nicole Loy, another second-grade teacher, to plan the first week of school.
The main difference between Snavely and Loy, a classroom veteran of 13 years, is Snavely’s early years will be defined by her ability to pivot and adjust to the demands of pandemic-era education, the veteran teacher said.
“The best thing that I can do as a mentor is just to be a sounding board and to provide positive support,” Loy said.
Snavely said new teachers might ultimately benefit from having experienced education during the pandemic both as teachers and students. Compared to previous generations of teachers, they’ll be more flexible and willing to try new ways of teaching, she said.
During that first week of school, Snavely quizzed her students on how long she’d been a teacher. One of them answered, “Two days!”
But the second graders quickly followed up by reassuring her she was doing a great job.
“I told them that just like they’ll make mistakes, I’ll make mistakes, but we’re going to support each other and be there for each other,” Snavely said.
“We’re going to learn together.”