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Zackary Petker, Saint Rose Alumni, helping student in his classroom

As far back as elementary school, Zackary Petker recalls wanting to be a teacher. When it was time to choose a college, the Long Island native visited Saint Rose on a friend’s recommendation, fell in love with it, and immersed himself in the education program.

Petker did his teacher observation hours in an Albany middle school and continued another three years, even though he didn’t have to. He tutored at an afterschool program and used an undergraduate research grant to evaluate various approaches to teaching. In May 2017, he graduated cum laude with a degree in adolescence education. By the fall, he had a job, teaching at Hackett Middle School, where he’d done his observation. During his first year of teaching, Petker also earned his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Saint Rose.

“When I was growing up, it was the recession, and teachers were being let go, and people were discouraged from going into the field,” said Petker, now 24, who teaches English at Hackett’s college and career-readiness program. “Now, it’s 100% changed. There aren’t enough bodies to fill the jobs. People need to come into teaching.”

Today, as the economy has recovered, older teachers have started retiring, and there are not enough replacements.

A Turning Tide

Teacher shortages have made headlines on CNN, in The Washington Post, and in publications across the country. The U.S. Department of Education reported the largest number of openings in math, special education, and science – with as many as 48 states and the District of Columbia citing a need for math teachers.

And just about every week, schools call Saint Rose.

“I can’t tell you how often principals call and say ‘Joe, we need a fifth-grade teacher, or even a sub,’” said Joseph Schaefer, coordinator of childhood and early childhood student teaching at the Thelma P. Lally School of Education.

“The schools know our students and alumni are wonderful, and now they can hire them,” added his colleague, Associate Professor of Education Christina Pfister.

Answering the Call to Teach

Among these alumni is Sophia Paljevic ’12, G’13. As she studied childhood education and then pursued her master’s degree in literacy, Paljevic ignored people who told her teaching does not pay well and that jobs were hard to come by.

Just a few months after graduating, she was hired as an AIS (Academic Intervention Services) teacher at P.S. 204 in the Bronx. Two years later, she had her own third-grade classroom.

“It is amazing to see people grow mentally and grow emotionally, and it’s amazing to have a part in it,” said Paljevic, who also conducts research and serves on the board of directors of the Association of Teacher Educators.

Paljevic’s name, as well as Petker’s, appears on a bulletin board their Saint Rose professors maintain outside their offices listing who got jobs where and when. Recent entries include positions in and around Albany and positions in Arizona and California.

The Shadow of the Challenges

The professors note that while the economy had been the main deterrent to prospective teachers, it was also true that the job was getting harder.

They point to the federal Race to the Top initiative in 2010 that produced a scramble for education dollars in New York and other states. The program built in standards teachers barely had time to absorb. The Common Core followed, with its heavy reliance on testing.

“All the requirements started taking away their ability to really teach,” said Pfister. “Our students in the field kept hearing it was so hard – and teachers sometimes forgot to tell them the good things.”

Today, the pressures have eased as testing policies have relaxed. Petker is grateful to have entered the field when he did. “The Common Core has run its course, and we know what’s expected of us,” he said. “The approach is ‘Let’s figure out how to help our students.’”

By Jane Gottlieb

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