Marleen C. Pugach is a Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has been responsible for the preparation of teachers for urban elementary and middle schools since 1986. Her areas of expertise include teacher education reform, collaboration in the preparation of special and general education teachers, and urban school-university partnerships. She is currently exploring how programs of dual certification in general and special education address diversity and the degree to which they represent substantial, transformative changes in teacher education.
This week I meet my first classes of the semester, one of which is a seminar for prospective teachers. These students are reaching the halfway mark in their teacher education programs and one of my most important goals is to create a sense of energy and motivation as they—for the first time—take on the responsibility of working with small groups and organizing instruction for whole classrooms of students in Milwaukee’s high needs urban schools. My seminar ties together courses students will be taking in the academic curriculum, assessment, and disability with their experiences in the field and places this all within a strong equity and urban-oriented focus that is the hallmark of our programs.
But it has been a particularly trying year for teachers in the state of Wisconsin, where I live and work, and I am worried about how my new class of teacher education students will be affected. The assault on teachers, part of a larger assault on public sector workers throughout Wisconsin that began late last winter, has had devastating consequences for education. Predictably, the numbers of veteran, highly-skilled teachers retiring has skyrocketed, leading principals all over the state to lament the loss of teacher leadership in their districts; they know the value of veteran teacher expertise. The loss of education funding, which was just reported to be the largest in the country this year, is most acutely felt in the state’s most diverse districts—all the way from Green Bay to Milwaukee. With the budget for public education eviscerated, there are unprecedented increases in class sizes, and, with the loss of skilled veterans, far fewer experienced colleagues for novices to turn to for advice, support, and professional knowledge in these more challenging circumstances. Every teacher will be taking home lower pay; for beginning teachers in Wisconsin, whose salaries average among the lowest of the 50 states compared to other beginning teachers, it is hard to imagine how they will cope financially. This comes alongside the loss of collective bargaining rights. Districts are, often unilaterally, developing teacher “handbooks” regarding the conditions of work. Some of these new conditions include significant reductions in teachers’ sick days, imposing teacher dress codes, lengthening school days, and shutting teachers out of decisions that affect the very classroom conditions in which their high-needs students will learn. In urban and low-income districts, the conditions are made worse by the loss of social safety net supports in the community.
So it is in this troubled setting that I am preparing to meet my class. For weeks I have been asking myself this simple question: How do I talk productively and enthusiastically about their chosen career? What do I say when they ask if they should change their major or when they tell me that their parents are encouraging them to do so? What about career changers, who have recently made the decision to pursue teaching because of a lifelong desire to do so? As I struggle to figure this out, I keep telling myself that today, more than any time before, is the time to talk about advocacy—not just for the children and youth they will teach, who need good teachers more than ever, but for the teachers themselves. Such advocacy as long been a focus of our teacher education program, but the sense of urgency is at its greatest today. We will need every stakeholder to keep our most promising young and novice teachers motivated in these difficult circumstances—their cooperating teachers/mentors, principals, teacher leaders who remain, parents, community members, business leaders, and every one of us at postsecondary institutions who meet prospective teachers. We will have to do this alone and in partnership. As fragile as the social contract is today, the path forward to equity in education in large part still lies with the next generation of teachers, and we will have to find every way possible to help those who are willing to make this commitment in such hard times.