The selection of the Arkansas Teacher of the Year is supposed to be a surprise, but Randi House, a kindergarten teacher at Conway’s Theodore Jones Elementary School, was already wiping away tears before her name was called.
House earlier had been named one of four semifinalists, so she knew she was in the running for the award. On Sept. 29, she was standing against the wall during a "school assembly" as the children sat on the floor listening to a reading. That’s when she saw Education Commissioner Johnny Key, other officials, her family, and news reporters file into the room.
House received a $14,000 check from the Walton Family Foundation. In February, she’ll train with other Teachers of the Year in California. And then July 1, she’ll leave the classroom for a year and travel the state promoting the profession, visiting with other teachers and learning new techniques. She’ll also be a nonvoting member of the Arkansas State Board of Education.
Hopefully she’ll be able to help reverse a trend that has policymakers concerned – a teacher shortage accompanied by a falling number of students studying to be teachers in Arkansas. Over a five-year period, enrollees in first-time teacher licensure programs dropped by more than half. In 2011-12, 7,758 candidates were enrolled in such programs. In 2015-16, it was 3,737.
Why the decline? You’d have to ask the thousands of students who might have chosen to become teachers, but didn’t. The pay is not bad. In Arkansas, the average teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 15 years’ experience earns $42,366 annually, and 13 years later that teacher can retire with full benefits. Also, the job can’t be outsourced to another country or performed by robots. At least not yet.
Certainly, the lack of interest must have something to do with a perceived lack of respect throughout society for the teaching profession. That’s why programs like Teacher of the Year are so important. As House said shortly after the announcement, "It’s very empowering. Teaching can sometimes be a little bit of a thankless job, and so to have the spotlight like this, it warms my heart and it really means something to me. I can tell my story. I can tell my kids’ stories."
One solution to the shortage is to continue opening up the profession to applicants from different backgrounds. More than one recent Teacher of the Year became an educator without earning an education degree. The 2016 winner, Meghan Ables, majored in journalism, became an English and journalism teacher in Stuttgart, and now manages the Teacher of the Year program. Ables was on hand for the announcement, along with at least four other previous winners.
Schools and the Education Department are addressing the shortage in other ways, including recruiting former teachers back into the classroom and using the Teacher Cadet program to interest high school students in the profession. The department is also considering a tiered licensing system where teachers would advance based on experience, proven effectiveness, and other criteria. The idea is to give teachers a rewarding career path that doesn’t require them to become administrators. Directors of such-and-such can be useful, but not at the expense of taking the best teachers from the classroom.
The announcement by Key was greeted by loud, sustained and repeated cheers from the students. House incorporates life skills into the classroom. Her students plant a garden, and she teaches them to cook and eat the vegetables. She introduces students to the wider world by inviting community volunteers, hosting virtual field trips, and videoconferencing with authors. She helps students write cards for nursing home residents. As each student departs for middle school, she gives them a framed picture of their first day in kindergarten.
She’ll return to the classroom after a year, but the experience will change her perspective, said Ables. She’ll help select future Teachers of the Year and will serve on a committee that meets twice annually with the commissioner.
"Most people that go back are really ready to have a big voice and bring positive change to their buildings," Ables said. "They’re hungry for leadership, so usually transitioning back, they have all these ideas and all these things that they’ve seen at a national level with policy and everything, and they’re ready to go back to their school and say, ‘Let’s do something big.’"
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.