Here’s how we retain our 4,000 ’emergency’ teachers

Our goal is to transition them to permanent status, rebuild our teaching workforce

THE STUDENT at our virtual open house had a lot of questions. “I am working under an emergency license,” she told us, “and I want to keep teaching. How soon can I start my coursework?” This student is not alone – over 4,000 people are working under what is called an emergency teaching license in Massachusetts, and over the next two years, they need to either convert that to a more permanent license or be lost to the education system.

What we do in the next few months will determine what happens to these emergency license-holders. The state of Massachusetts has an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild its teaching workforce over the next few years if people who have entered teaching with emergency licenses convert those to permanent licenses.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allowed more leeway on the requirements for teachers, which are usually among the most stringent in America. The people who applied for emergency licenses in 2019-2020 are more diverse than the traditional teaching workforce, and many are career changers, bringing a different set of skills and experiences to the classroom.

In all of our interactions with emergency license holders, we have found them smart, dedicated, skilled, and looking for a way, over the long term, to apply their talents to the classroom. The state, in waiving some testing requirements, has opened the door to people whose commitment to young people, and skill working with them, is evident in classroom observations and other direct measures of teaching skills.

In order to keep these teachers in the field, Merrimack College has been working to develop programming to move these individuals from their current emergency status into masters’s degree programs. We hope in the coming years to welcome these students into our teacher leadership program and administrator leadership programs. We see emergency license teachers as not only a way to plug a temporary hole in the recruiting system, but, more importantly, as a long-term investment in school leadership within the next decade.

What can we do to help these teachers make this transition?

  1. Provide advice to people with emergency licenses, as well as those already working in assistant roles in schools, to help them see a clear career path that leads to permanent licensure, and eventually into leadership opportunities.

  2. Give candidates regular access to coaches and advisors who can help them overcome barriers to their learning and progress. Also provideaffinity programs and help add coursework to their already crowded work/life/family schedule.

  3. Provide resources to help teachers afford the coursework and required state tests, and provide regular support in the form of accountability/affinity groups. This can help candidates with the work/life balance and other issues that can derail their progress.

  4. Encourage emergency license holders to become our next generation of peer and building leaders as we help build the future of our K-12 system. As emergency license holders take the full coursework for their license, we should incentivize further education in high-needs areas such as grade-level leadership, building leadership, social-emotional learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion. At every step, maximize scholarships and other support to ensure that future teachers do not enter the field in student debt.

Through a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Merrimack College is partnering with 12 school districts across the state to address these issues, and to support at least 50 emergency license teachers in their journey towards a career. If the state, districts, colleges/universities, and others in the field can work together over the next two years, we can change the teaching workforce for the better, bringing a range of life and work experiences into classrooms.

Deborah Margolis is dean and Russ Olwell is associate dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.