NJ schools are struggling to fill vacancies for math, science and technology teachers. Here’s why.

As a teacher shortage hits schools in New Jersey and across the country, teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are among the hardest-to-find new hires, superintendents said, principals and other education officials. .

They tell stories of freshly minted physics teachers with multiple offers and districts offering hiring bonuses and increasing pay scales to qualified STEM teacher candidates. In at least 10 high schools, substitute or certified teachers in other disciplines are managing STEM classrooms and administering tests while their students take online lessons. Six need such coverage for chemistry, three for physics, one for biology and one for environmental science, according to Robert Goodman, director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been right now,” said Goodman, a former state teacher of the year known for a freshman physics program at Bergen Tech Teterboro, who has leads the state to take the AP Physics exam.

The shortage puts New Jersey — home of the light bulb, air conditioning, bubble wrap, radar and Pfizer vaccine — at risk of losing its status as a leader in technical innovation.

While STEM teachers were scarce even before the pandemic, finding them “has become exponentially more difficult,” said Karen Bingert, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, a membership organization for school leaders. STEM teachers need special certifications and content training, and students now have to take certain career-ready courses that require tech teachers. “How are schools supposed to ensure that graduating students meet this specific requirement when teachers with the required certifications are simply nowhere to be found? ” she says.

Brian Drelick, STEM supervisor at High Point Regional High School in Wantage Township, said it would be difficult for the state to provide enough young workers without well-staffed STEM classes.. “If we have to close programs or if there are not enough physics sections,” he said, “or if you have full courses in anatomy, forensics, and statistics…we don’t direct them to college and careers” in STEM.

Scott Taylor, township superintendent of Union schools, said he found only two candidates for high school science jobs, even though the district’s starting salary is high in the state.. younion began recruiting in mid-April, posting ads and going to a recruiting fair. If Taylor can’t fill science positions in early August, he’ll have to see if any of his current professors would take additional terms for more money.

In March, he found two top math professors from Kean University’s Women in STEM program interested in teaching.

“We treat them like prized college athletes,” he said, “inviting them to school events, sometimes texting them to check on how things are going. I feel like [football coach] Greg Schiano at Rutgers, staying on top of my rookies.

Michael Fanelli, principal of Pathways in Technology Early College in New Brunswick, recently interviewed a promising physics teacher candidate who said up front that he already had several offers.

“I just got a text from our HR manager saying he’s accepted an offer in another district,” he said. “It’s a fear that a lot of us have.”

Recent graduates skilled in technology and STEM may prefer working from home rather than in the classroom, he noted.

The shortage has many causes. Teachers earn just 78.6 cents on the dollar, compared to other college graduates, with salaries stagnating over the past 20 years. Statewide, fewer people are starting programs to become teachers. There were 13 enrollees per 1,000 students in the state in 2009, but that number fell to 6 in 2018. And fewer of those enrollees are completing them – five per 1,000 students in 2009, falling to less than three in 2017. according to a report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a think tank.

Meanwhile, STEM professions are expected to grow more than twice as fast. Their growth is projected to 8% by 2029, compared to all occupations, which are expected to grow 3.7%, according to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thus, STEM-skilled graduates will have wider options than their peers, and they may be attracted to jobs that are better paying and less stressful than teaching.

For now, New Jersey also requires teachers to pass the EdTPA assessment, used in a dozen states, but which some applicants and teacher organizations find costly and onerous, and which a group of researchers found unjustified and marked in a potentially discriminatory manner. On Thursday, a bill to remove that requirement passed the Assembly Education Committee and has already been passed by the Senate Education Committee.

The state Senate passed a bill last year to remove another barrier to hiring teachers during a shortage, the state requirement that teachers must live in New Jersey. The Assembly did not deal with it.

In the meantime, STEM courses are becoming increasingly popular. Nationally, the number of physics students increased by 12% from 2013 to 2019, while the number of teachers nationally only increased by 2%. And the institutions that train physics teachers are not meeting the demand.

The Center for Teaching and Learning, a nonprofit that trains STEM teachers and offers free open-source curricula, is trying to help by helping existing teachers specialize in shortage areas. . It is one of nine higher education institutions in the country to train more than five new physics teachers per year. Over the past five years, they’ve produced an average of 25, Goodman said, using online courses that help teachers of other subjects become certified in subjects like physics. He said the center charges $165 per credit, while Rutgers charges $757 per credit.

If a teacher in a rare specialty leaves mid-year, schools must choose between closing the class or hiring a replacement to monitor tests and manage students while they take online classes.

Carl Blanchard, K-12 science supervisor at the Glen Rock School District, said physics positions were the hardest to fill. A teacher left at the end of summer last year and existing staff had to take more lessons, he said. Then in the middle of this year, another physics professor left and only one person applied for this position. Blanchard also found surprisingly few candidates for college biology and science positions.

This spring, when he needed a six-week fix for a physics vacancy, he brought in a distance instructor from the Center for Teaching and Learning, which is supported in part by the New Jersey Education Association. “It helped the kids stay on track and maybe catch up a bit, prepare for the AP exams they had just taken.”

He also sent a teacher from the college under the center’s program to certify physics teachers. “We try to perpetuate our department a bit,” he said.

Bingert, of the Association of Managers and Supervisors, said solutions to the shortage could be legislative. She hopes to see scholarships and tuition relief programs for future educators and teacher training academies, where high school students interested in teaching could earn college credit at pre-education academies.

She also advocates “reviewing certification requirements” for teaching candidates who are slightly lacking required test scores or grade point averages and ensuring STEM teaching certification requirements reflect what is needed in schools. .

In January, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom for two years while continuing to receive their pensions to ease teacher shortages in critical-needs areas.

Drelick, the High Point supervisor, searched for six months to fill a vacancy as a technology teacher and had to cover the class himself rather than close it. He said it was up to STEM teachers, in part, to help create future STEM teachers.

“I think it starts with us, as part of K-12, talking more to our current students about the blessings and joys of teaching. Too often, teachers talk to their students about becoming engineers, doctors or statisticians.

“I don’t think we’ve ever really stood on the pitch and said, ‘I really think you should be a teacher. This is why you should be teaching Tech Ed.”

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Tina Kelley can be reached at tkelley@njadvancemedia.com.

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