New Jersey State Sen. Troy Singleton.

By Sen. Troy Singleton | New Jersey Legislature, District 7

As the unofficial summer slowly slides to an end, it bumps into the approaching Labor Day holiday.

Though some school districts around the country have already started, many of us connect the days after Labor Day with the beginning of school. We associate this period with a fresh start. It is a time to learn, a time for fun, and a time to reunite with classmates.

Unfortunately, when we discuss education issues, we find ourselves surrounded by growing problems. One of those issues is attracting qualified individuals to the teaching profession. A recent news report interviewed a student who had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education and came from a long line of teachers.

The controversy over various masking rules in the schools, implementation of a new sex education curriculum, how to teach racial issues, and the desire by some to ban certain books in school libraries had caused her to reject the teaching goal she previously held.

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“When COVID first hit, everyone was praising teachers,” the student said. “And now we see this war on education. And it just seems so thankless.”

This attitude has contributed to a teacher shortage, amplified by a growing number of experienced, seasoned teachers who are leaving or retiring in droves.

I never intended in my blogs to provide a laundry list of problems, but the education issue is so paramount that it isn’t hyperbole to say (as many have) that it’s a crisis.

Responsible legislators need to offer workable solutions to this upheaval, and even before I entered public service, I was a staunch supporter of progressive education policies. After all, I too benefited from attending New Jersey schools and graduated from a local university.

One realistic approach to attracting college students to the teaching profession is to reach them through a targeted advertising campaign. We need a guiding message emphasizing the idea that teaching remains one of the noblest professions because it truly educates our future citizens.

Therefore, I have sponsored a proposal, Senate Bill No. 2745, which would direct the N.J. Department of Education to create a multimedia advertising campaign to attract teachers and education support professionals. It would reinforce the idea that teaching is still an engaging, dynamic, and rewarding career.

I also supported Senate Bill No. 3685, which became law during the last legislative session, to address the anticipated need for teachers due to an expected shortage. This would address the issue from inside the profession. I have alluded to the fact that some of our shortfall in teachers arises because they leave the field or retire, some earlier because of the prevailing chaos.

Senate Bill No. 3685 permits a certificated teacher who retired from the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) to return to work full time without re-enrolling in the TPAF if re-employment commences during the period of the public health emergency and state of emergency declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This law permits the teacher to receive the TPAF retirement allowance and a salary. Further, the law permits the return to work under a contract for one year, which may be renewed only for one additional year.  

This inducement could enthuse former teachers, who often bring a wealth of experience with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. They would return as seasoned classroom professionals.

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Is there more that we can do? There is. After I wrote this blog, I asked a teacher who had just retired after 21 years what she would recommend. She has two graduate degrees from an Ivy League school and offered these suggestions:

  • Focus on training and recruitment of good administrators. The focus is on the loss of teachers, but a key reason for these losses is the fact that good managers do not always run schools. Training and degrees alone are not sufficient to develop sound public school administrators.
  • Pause the current onerous state testing requirements. Both students and teachers have not made up for learning loss over the last two years. Create a map for all schools on HOW to help teachers and students with benchmark achievements desired as they ready themselves for state tests. 
  • Explore a new model for the structure of one teacher per classroom. Teachers’ required duties have grown longer each year, so many don’t view their teaching responsibilities as reasonable.
  • Analyze all the many non-content related “to-dos” and explore whether other adults in the building can share those non-academic requirements.

I’m not trying to sound overly sentimental when I write that the ring of a school bell should be a welcoming time of the year. It should stir a desire to enter the classroom, suggest a safe environment and create the joy of learning something new every day that will carry our students for a lifetime. Good luck to all our students and school personnel heading back into the classroom! 

That’s my take, what’s yours? 

This column first appeared in Singleton’s newsletter released Sept. 1. He is the Democratic New Jersey State senator which mostly encompasses Burlington County.

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