By Kendra Sitton | Editor
Hundreds of education leaders, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals and teachers gathered at the San Diego Zoo on Tuesday, March 26 to discuss the STEM teacher shortage and other issues in the field.
Organizers announced 100Kin10 had trained over 68,000 STEM teachers so far and are on track to reach 100,000 by 2021. The nonprofit, led by Executive Director Talia Milgrom-Elcott, made this goal a central part of its work as it seeks innovative solutions to improve the teaching profession.
Held at the nonprofit’s partner organizations around the country over the years, this is the first time this annual conference came to San Diego. Milgrom-Elcott was excited for the venue to be San Diego’s renowned zoo. Although 100Kin10 partners with a variety of companies, foundations, government agencies and universities, the San Diego Zoo is the only zoo in its network. She said she felt the educators who came could be refreshed by returning to a place where the love of science and discovery sparked for many.
“You want a place where, people when they come here, connect back to: Why did I enter STEM in the first place?” she said.
The Zoo is involved with 100Kin10’s work year-round and is integral in training hundreds of current and upcoming STEM teachers in inquiry-based curriculum in Conservation Science.
Riley Meehan, is an engineering teacher at High Tech Elementary and worked with 100Kin10 for four years. He is also part of the cohort making up the 2019 Teacher Forum. As the only engineering teacher at the San Diego elementary school, the position can be isolating so the networks created by 100Kin10 helped him connect to teachers across the nation in similar situations.
After being trained as an engineer, he chose to become a teacher because he saw that all of his classmates only entered engineering classes because they personally knew someone who was an engineer. Most of them had never been taught the subject in a K through 12 school.
“Knowing that meant there would be very few people who end up engineers if there’s only people who knew engineers. It meant that to me there had to be more engineering education in the classroom, so trying to find ways to do that as early as possible felt pressing and important so the people who are designing the world – engineers – come from a diverse background,” Meehan said.
This, and many other factors, including record growth, led to a shortage in workers qualified to enter the STEM field, which has high wages and secure jobs.
Milgrom-Elcott believes training STEM teachers will help fill the gap, but low pay is driving them away.
“If you graduate undergrad with a STEM degree, you’ve got jobs that off the bat pay on average about $20,000 more than a STEM teaching job pays. That is a huge driver. There aren’t enough people graduating with STEM degrees in any event. It’s not just that we’re competing for the same small pool; that pool needs to grow. Ironically, STEM teachers would increase the pool,” she said.
Dr. Zulmara Cline works in the Chancellor’s Office for the California State University system. As the associate director of the Teacher Education and Public School Programs, she addresses college readiness in schools across the state, and often helps schools facing a shortage in STEM teachers.
“100kin10 is calling to the forefront all of these issues that are a part of STEM education. How do you get qualified teachers in the field and how do you get them to stay there? Non-teacher STEM fields pay so much more,” Cline said.
She explained that even for schools who grow STEM teachers at home, there can still be problems with retaining those teachers. For instance, a small Central Valley high school she recently visited helped teachers’ aides get credentialed to become STEM teachers, but once they see higher pay and increased options open to them with the degree, they leave the small school.
Issues like this are why Milgrom-Elcott believes the focus of 100Kin10 will shift to helping teachers stay in the classroom and supporting them once the goal of training 100,000 teachers is met.
“It’s got to be that teaching is a place where adults can thrive, and then, they can create classrooms where their students can thrive,” Milgrom-Elcott said. “The work can’t end in 2021. We can’t put 100,000 amazing humans into schools and then watch so many of them leave because teaching isn’t a great career. So we have work to make the career great so more people want to teach and those who choose to teach stay.”
The conference took place in the weeks after Escondido joined teachers across the nation in striking for higher pay.
“The reality is, especially in California, unless you have some way to get housing, teaching is a difficult profession,” Cline said.
As a former teacher herself, Cline saw firsthand how the industry requires a disproportionate amount of education for how much teachers are paid. For people to enter the field, they must have a passion for teaching, Cline said, which also means officials can get away with not paying them.
Teacher pay is already shaping up to be a campaign issue in 2020. California Senator and 2020 candidate Kamala Harris unveiled a proposal in March that would raise the average teacher salary by 23% over a decade through billions of dollars in federal matching funds.
The Trump administration is taking the opposite course, with Education Secretary Betsy Devos proposing a budget that slashes her department’s funding by $8.5 billion.
“There’s a variety of ways that teachers don’t feel valued and that’s a reason people end up leaving. It’s a huge job that requires so much of you,” explained Meehan.
Milgrom-Elcott said San Diego teachers preparing to strike should not seek short-term, band-aid fixes. She said teachers, on top of being able to make ends meet, also need access to time collaborating with other adults and professional development during the workday like adults in other industries have. She’s seeking a holistic approach to keeping teachers in the classroom.
“We can’t ask teachers to be the engines of equality if they can’t take care of their own families,” said Milgrom-Elcott. “It’s also about the classroom-level and school-level conditions. If you can work on those two things together, many more people will choose to teach, and many more people will stay.”
— Reach Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.