The recent past, the current environment and the foreseeable future all indicate a changing landscape in education. Students, teachers and families have had to pivot more than once to meet learning needs during the continued pandemic environment.
The educator shortage is also starting to become very visible. Districts across the country, the Colorado Department of Education, Fort Lewis College and our local schools have all been tracking the teacher shortages for years now. The rural areas have unique challenges in recruiting highly qualified teachers, especially in high-need fields, like math, science and special education. This, combined with earlier retirements, and pandemic and burnout-related exits, are creating significant need in several subject areas, grade levels and even in day-to-day coverage like substitute teacher needs.
The good news is that disruption affords us the opportunity to address true change. In the School of Education at FLC, we are doing that very thing! New visions, augmented supports and creative student-centered responses are being translated in concrete ways that advance a stable and diverse teaching profession. We are working diligently to ensure that each and every student is taught by a fully prepared teacher. Teaching is an important profession requiring content knowledge, strong pedagogical and management skills, and the right disposition. Our program builds on decades of research on effective practices that indeed now must look a bit different in the current and future light.
Like the P-12 schools, we too must pivot on a dime. We must recast how we are recruiting future teachers into the field. We’ve always been an experiential, hands-on institution. We know that the best way to engage and excite our teaching candidates is by immersing them in the field with children and youths.
Last year, my phone rang with a call from the Ute Mountain Ute Education Center asking for practicum students to go to Towaoc to help tutor students as they transitioned to online learning. We had FLC students in a van headed there weekly and organized in a matter of hours the kind of planning that used to trickle too slowly. We tutored students in several districts. Where we were welcomed for in-person learning in area schools, we taught, worked, laughed, listened, cried, learned and did it all again the next day.
Our teaching candidates were often hired straight in by districts in emergency situations and our alternative paths to teaching have become more robust. Our mid- and end-year graduates secured teaching jobs of choice immediately. We are working on fundraising and scholarships to attract candidates into the rural districts and we are finding people who stay, others who return to their home communities and still more who go on to soar in new adventures. We even have a few who go abroad and give global teaching a go.
The best news is that while we do strive to attract people into the field, we are still seeing dedicated, bright, hardworking people who commit to becoming licensed educators. The word “licensed” is key because those completing our programs must attend to the bureaucratic maze that licensure entails. For example, this year, the READ Act required a new course in the science of reading for our early childhood and elementary candidates. We were immediately responsive to the mandate and we have the expertise to do so with our talented and highly educated faculty.
In looking at community learning needs and goals, we have also been fortunate to partner with the three Ute tribes – Southern Ute, Ute Mountain and Northern Ute – in a language-revitalization program where participants will finish with a certificate for teaching Ute language in a community setting. Elders have given guidance to that program, and we have students ranging in age from 21 to 80 years old. The classes meet on Saturdays, and it is so inspiring to hear insights, cultural knowledge, curricular components and more driven by Indigenous knowledge. Here on campus, we are also living out our commitments and doing so with passion and energy! Whether it is online graduate students in class at night discussing problems of practice for principals, reflecting on case studies, or undergraduate students clamoring about their time spent in a classroom where kids rolled around on the rug and had to be redirected, we learn together. FLC is transactional, not transmissional.
We are looking to other developmental paths with new energy in the concurrent enrollment field to identify candidates as early as high school age who have some inclination to the field. New partnerships are being forged, and every day I hear remarkable ideas for what new terrain we could explore. But life is about work, not just wishes. Teaching remains a profession that brings joy, inspires change and builds the future. This is a collaborative endeavor with our community, and we look ahead to continual progress.
As we say in Spanish, “Adelante!” Let’s move forward together, as education matters to all of us.
Dr. Jenni Trujillo is the dean of School of Education at Fort Lewis College.