A shortage of trained teachers in Oregon is leaving school districts short-handed, so replacements without educational backgrounds are being recruited from other professions to fill the gap.
This school year at Umatilla School District, two science teachers are embarking on a new career after years of real-world experience in the subject. Dan Durfey at the middle school and Amy Jewett at the high school are two of 50 in the state who have received three-year alternative route licenses to teach while they complete master’s degree programs in education.
Jewett worked in Arlington as a chemist for Chemical Waste Management of the Northwest for eight years. She said her first two weeks managing a classroom have been difficult, but she believes she will learn the skills necessary to teach.
“I can already sense some improvement in my teaching style from last week to this week,” she said. “As time passes and I get more experience, I’ll definitely get better.”
Durfey, 43, worked as the Umatilla County Weed Control supervisor for the last 10 years, with a total of 20 years of experience in the profession. He said he was asked if he was interested in becoming an educator.
“I’ve done a lot of education in the other (weed control) job with the Watershed Field Days and Earth Day,” he said. “So it was like I could just carry this on over. And the opportunity just presented itself, and I wanted to be with my kids more so I thought, `Why not?”‘ Both teachers already had bachelor’s degrees in science, which were required to obtain the three-year license. They also were required to pass a test on national and state civil rights laws and professional ethics, as well as a rigorous state test required for the grade-level and subject-matter area.
“I had to study for it,” Durfey said of the science test. “It was like going back to school again. It was pretty difficult. There was a lot of stuff in there that I did in college, so it wasn’t that bad. But a lot of the stuff I forgot.”
Durfey said his first two weeks as a teacher went fairly well. He is teaching two standard life sciences classes and five science, technology, engineering and math-based science classes for seventh- and eighth-grade students. He said the STEM classes allow him to design the curriculum, and he plans to utilize his real-world knowledge.
“I’m going to bring 20 years of experience in here from everything I’ve seen that you don’t see in the textbook,” he said. “If you go to school and graduate, this is exactly what you will be doing in a job.”
Durfey, who is also a coach, said he plans to start his master’s program after football season. He said the school district has been very supportive, helping him in the classroom and with his own ongoing education.
Superintendent Heidi Sipe, who also chairs the state licensing commission, said the alternative route license requires a dual application from both the educator and the district.
“It’s the school district committing to help train this person,” she said. “We understand that they didn’t come through a traditional route, and we’re going to provide the supports needed to make this successful.”
Sipe said the district must also complete dual applications for many of the other nontraditional license types. She said the district can also help obtain temporary emergency licenses for people who are missing a required component.
Sipe said the different paths to licensure are not new, and she did not believe the percentage of nontraditional teachers dramatically increased this year. However, she said that funding has forced her to cut positions in six of the eight years she has been an administrator. If education funding improves and the district is able to re-establish those positions, Sipe said finding qualified people to fill them may be difficult.
“When that happens, I’m really concerned about finding educators because a lot of people left the profession altogether due to the stress of budget cuts,” she said. “We’ve had fewer people entering education prep programs. Why are they going to enter a program from which people are being laid off left and right?”
According to federal Title II reports, 4,203 Oregon students were enrolled in teacher preparation programs with 2,221 completing the program in 2008-09. The most recent report from 2012-13 shows only 1,891 students enrolled with 1,672 completing the program.
Oregon is not the only state in which students are electing not to become teachers. National Title II reports show 719,081 students were enrolled in teacher prep programs in 2008-09 and only 499,800 were enrolled in 2012-13.
Sipe said more teachers will likely be needed to fill the void, and she encouraged people to consider the profession.
“One of my jobs as an educator is to be sure people understand what an amazing career this is and how awesome it is to impact students,” she said. “Yes, there are absolutely stresses in this profession, but the benefits far outweigh the stress.”