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Elia, Zimpher get an earful about teaching woes during statewide ‘listening tour’

New York’s two top educators came to Buffalo on Tuesday to warn of a looming teacher shortage and figure out how to recruit the next generation to the embattled profession.

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, and MaryEllen Elia, commissioner of the state Education Department, came to the University at Buffalo South Campus on Main Street, the fourth stop on their statewide “listening tour” for the new TeachNY initiative.

Publicly launched in May, TeachNY is a campaign aimed at promoting the teaching profession amid projections of a looming national shortage over the next decade as the baby boomers exit the field.

“The boomers are retiring and that’s really caused a gap that’s faster than we were prepared for,” Zimpher said. “So even though there have been difficulties getting jobs in the past, that is going to radically change.”

New York would need 6 percent more teachers by 2022, or roughly 1,700 teachers a year, according to statistics from the state Department of Labor.

Figures show Western New York would need 4 percent more by 2022, or an additional 90 teachers a year.

“Financial situations are improving. More and more people are really considering their retirement time,” Elia said. “These things are all factors that over the next three to five years are going to contribute to the situation we have in New York of trying to find teachers certified to go in our classrooms.”

At the same time, there’s concern about the ability to attract new teachers.

The profession has come under fire in recent years during the battle to reform education, as teachers are being held more accountable for student performance and face more scrutiny with teacher evaluations and changes to certification.

Enrollment in teaching programs at SUNY is down 40 percent since 2009.

In fact, some districts already are having trouble attracting science, special-education and foreign-language teachers, said Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers.

“It should come as no surprise if politicians and policymakers bash teachers and throw up obstacles that there would be a decline in young people who aspire to enter the profession,” Korn said.

The two large state entities have agreed to tackle the problem together.

“Higher-ed and K-12 have figured out we have to be on the same page,” Elia said.

“We prepare the teachers who teach the students who come to college ready or not,” Zimpher said. “So in many ways, we own this challenge.”

The TeachNY Advisory Council issued a report with a number of recommendations for moving forward, including expanding in-school training for teachers, more investment in professional development and targeting a more diverse pool of teachers.

The union has ripped the report, which “repeats the failed top-down approach that wreaked such havoc on public education in New York State.”

But local educators met Tuesday afternoon at UB for a roundtable discussion on the topic and provide further input to Elia and Zimpher so the two education leaders can lobby for policy changes.

Zimpher and Elia also met with a small group of UB doctoral students on Tuesday to get their impressions of the profession and what needs to be done to attract people to teaching.

The two got an earful.

Teachers are under so much more pressure these days and yet the job has become demonized, said Tiffany Nyachae, a former teacher at Westminster Community Charter School in Buffalo.

“People treat you like you’re a baby sitter as opposed to an educator doing one of the most important jobs in the world,” Nyachae said.

“I think our field has just been so mired in negativity,” said Kristen Pastore-Capuana, an English teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School.

There’s a punitive feel to the profession these days, said Melissa Meola Shanahan, an English language arts teacher at Lafayette High School.

“Punitive to our students, punitive to our teachers,” she said.

Zimpher and Elia said they got the message.

“I think loud and clear,” Zimpher said.

“That which we are really supporting, lifting up the profession of teaching – that’s what we heard,” Zimpher said. “Teachers want to be respected. They want people to understand the work that they do – the challenges of the classroom. They want to be recognized for their own professionalism.”


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