David Hecker: Empower paraprofessionals to address Michigan’s teacher shortage

November 8, 2021 6:00 am

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It’s no secret that school districts across Michigan are struggling with a teacher shortage—and both teachers and students are struggling as a result. Without adequate staff, schools are forced to resort to larger class sizes, increasing teachers’ workloads and making it more difficult for students to get the individualized attention they need to succeed.

In more extreme circumstances, such as the recent situation at Eastpointe Middle School, schools may even have to temporarily shut down buildings or go virtual because they simply do not have enough teachers to cover their classes.

Of course, this is a complicated problem and schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers for a variety of reasons, including inadequate funding to pay teachers appropriately, financial barriers to becoming a qualified teacher, and decades’ worth of public policy that has undermined public education and sought to diminish educators’ voices.

And many of the barriers to becoming a certified teacher disproportionately affect people of color, leading to a lack of diversity in the teaching profession. When we discuss solutions to the teacher shortage, it’s important that we also consider the ways systemic racism leads to communities of color being underrepresented among teachers.

Teachers and other school staff play an important role in helping our children learn and grow, and it’s crucial that we provide the support they need to do their jobs effectively. At the same time, we need to think critically about how we can find, recruit, and train new teachers.

For too long, we have ignored an untapped source of prospective teachers: paraprofessionals who already work in schools. These employees are already an integral part of the school environment who work frequently with students, providing support in and outside of the classroom.

Paraprofessionals’ years of experience working with kids and their tendency to be well-entrenched in their communities make them uniquely suited to becoming teachers, but there are significant barriers that keep many paraprofessionals from making that jump. Getting certified to teach is expensive, and not everyone can afford to take time off work to go back to school.

That’s where reforms at the state and local level come in. In several other states and some local systems, programs exist to provide financial assistance to paraprofessionals seeking to get certified as teachers. And in the Michigan Legislature, state Reps. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores) and Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) have introduced legislation that would provide a tuition-free path for paraprofessionals to become teachers and create a fund to support this effort.

Of course, we have a lot of work to do and should be addressing the issue from all angles, but this reform would be an important step forward. With proper support, paraprofessionals can overcome the obstacles that have made it difficult for them to get teaching certifications and help replenish the educational workforce.

With this influx of new teachers, schools would be able to better support students’ needs and overburdened teachers would see their workloads reduced to a more manageable level, but the potential benefits go even deeper than that. While communities of color are underrepresented among teachers, in many districts the population of school support staff tends to be far more diverse. Recruiting from the pool of paraprofessionals and establishing paths for them to become certified teachers would help remedy the systemic barriers that have disproportionally affected people of color and make the teaching profession more diverse and inclusive.

We cannot wait to act on the teacher shortage. Michigan teachers and students are struggling now, and they need solutions. While there’s a lot of work to be done and we must attack the issue from all angles, establishing a paraprofessional-to-teacher pipeline is one way we can make an immediate difference. I strongly urge the legislature to take up and pass the bills proposed by Reps. Hertel and Koleszar, for the good of students, teachers, and the entire education system. 

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.