SYRACUSE — Fostering conversations, and keeping that dialogue going, were the focus of NYSUT’s first “Take a Look at Teaching” summit Tuesday at Syracuse Teachers Association headquarters.
One of several summits planned statewide over the upcoming year, the union-led initiative aims to encourage students and career-changers to consider the teaching profession.
“We don’t have the perfect answer,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, who moderated the forum. “We’re here today to start talking about creative solutions.”
Educators, administrators, students, area legislators and state policymakers brainstormed a wide range of solutions to the looming teaching shortage. Enrollment in teacher education programs across New York state has plummeted nearly 50 percent and an estimated one-third of teachers are eligible to retire in the next five years. The initiative also focuses on ways to increase cultural diversity within the teaching field, and to encourage educators to enter high-need subject and geographic areas.
Of the many suggestions offered by participants, several resonated, including: the need for strong mentoring programs; reducing New York’s many bureaucratic certification hurdles; providing a sustainable funding stream for programs that improve teaching and learning; and the need for a smoother transfer of earned credits between community college and four-year teaching programs.
“We need to do a much better job at mentoring,” said Amy Hysick, a North Syracuse science teacher and 2017 NYS Teacher of the Year. “We’re bleeding new teachers. We need to find a way to better support them and to help them want to stay.”
Syracuse TA member Jessica Terry Elliot, a high school Social Studies teacher, highlighted the need for autonomy and improving working conditions.
“If you want to solve the retention issue, let teachers teach,” she said. “Take the reins off — that’s how you’re going to get, and keep, the best teachers.”
'There were people who believed in me and pushed me to keep going'
There was widespread support for programs to increase diversity within the education workforce. DiBrango noted 43 percent of students statewide are African American and Hispanic/Latino, compared to 16 percent of the teacher population.
Nichole Brown, who heads SUNY Oswego’s Teacher Opportunity Corps program, said it’s important for students of color to have teachers who look like them. “You can’t be who you don’t see.”
Syracuse TA member Jessica Elliot agreed. She returned to her high school because throughout her school career, she had only one teacher of color.
“I wanted to help fix that problem,” said Elliot, who developed an African-American history course for her district.
Jesus Ortiz, who teaches at Seymour Dual Language Academy in Syracuse, explained his long journey to becoming a teacher after spending 14 years as a teaching assistant.
“The career ladder program and all the mentors along the way made it possible,” he said. “There were people who believed in me and pushed me to keep going.”
Despite all the challenges, Ortiz said there is no more rewarding career than education. He brought along a touching letter from a student who was returning to Puerto Rico after being in his class.
“I wish you and the other kids could come with me,” she wrote. “You all are in my heart. You are my family.”
“There’s no better feeling than getting a letter like this,” Ortiz said. “That’s what teaching is all about.”