COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – One public school teacher-turned-lawmaker wants to get more educators back in Ohio’s classrooms.

As schools throughout the state grapple with increasingly dissatisfied teachers and severe staffing shortages, Rep. Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville) is proposing a slew of legislation she said will encourage former educators to return to the classroom and entice future educators to join the force.

Lightbody, a former teacher who recently retired as a professor from Ohio State University, said teachers are expected to perform “an incredible number of roles,” contributing to the record numbers of educator burnout.

“They’re challenging times,” she said. “And teachers are beginning to rethink their careers.”

With burnout reported as the “top issue” faced by teachers, 55% of educators nationwide are planning to leave the profession earlier than anticipated, according to a January report from the National Education Association. That’s up from the 37% of educators who reported plans to quit in August, just months before the NEA’s report.

Columbus City Schools spokesperson Jacqueline Bryant said that as of Tuesday, the district had 57 vacant teacher positions. Bryant credited the talent acquisition department for “hustling on the recruitment front,” as the district had 222 open teacher roles just days before.

Why are teachers leaving?

The number of teacher vacancies is likely to grow in the coming weeks, Columbus Education Association president John Congelio said, as educators typically tender their resignation letters toward the end of the school year, specifically on July 10. That’s the day teachers are required to provide a five-day notice to terminate their contracts. 

“We’re already fielding phone calls about teachers wanting to resign,” Coneglio, a former social studies teacher at Independence High School, said. “So, you know, it goes back to, ‘do we have realistic expectations? How are we supporting people in the classroom?’”

Teachers are leaving in droves for a myriad of reasons, he said, whether it be low wages, severe staff shortages, high-stake testing requirements, the difficulty of supporting students’ needs during the pandemic and what he called Ohio lawmakers’ recent attempts to limit teachers’ academic freedom.

“If you really want to attract teachers, right, let’s start talking about what is the state, what are the local districts going to do about the working conditions? Right, the social-emotional needs of our students? Making the job competitive, right?” Coneglio said.

Up to $40,000 in student loan forgiveness for STEM teachers

Rep. Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville). Photo courtesy of the Ohio House of Representatives

A former middle school science teacher, Lightbody said some Ohio schools, particularly those in rural areas, struggle to recruit teachers with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math.

Under House Bill 663, the department of education and chancellor of higher education are authorized to establish a loan repayment program to forgive up to $40,000 of outstanding student loans for seventh through twelfth-grade STEM teachers. Eligible participants must be first-time educators who agree to teach for five years at a school with “persistently low-performance ratings on its state report card” that struggle to attract STEM instructors, according to the bill’s text.

Lightbody said by boosting the availability of STEM instruction, HB 663 will get more of Ohio’s youth “excited and interested in staying with those skills and that knowledge,” positioning them for a future career.

“And then [students can] go into terrific jobs and keep them in Ohio, right, so a future workforce development for Intel and some of the other high-tech companies that are being attracted to Ohio,” she said.

‘Grow Your Own Teacher:’ Financial incentives for aspiring educators

Lightbody, who said she is “particularly sensitive” to the need for diverse teaching staff in Ohio’s schools, introduced a bill aimed at minimizing the financial barriers to earning an education degree.

House Bill 667 would launch a “Grow Your Own Teacher” program through which the Ohio Department of Education and chancellor of higher education can award up to $7,500 in scholarships to low-income high schoolers looking to pursue a degree or certificate in education, Lightbody said.

“I had some extremely bright, really awesome students when I was teaching in Columbus City who could’ve been terrific teachers but were from a very impoverished family situation,” she said. “Many of them expected to leave high school and go straight into some sort of a job to help their families.”

Low-income students from marginalized communities are less likely to have the financial means to afford higher education, so easing the steep costs, even by a few thousand dollars, could attract not only more teachers – but a diverse crowd of teachers, Lightbody said.

While 55% of all teachers said they intend to leave the classroom earlier than planned, those rates increased for educators of color, with 62% of Black and 59% Hispanic or Latino teachers expressing a desire to leave earlier, the NEA’s report found.

Boosting the number of teachers from marginalized communities is key to building a school district that accurately reflects its student body, Lightbody said.

“To think, ‘Oh, I have a Black teacher, or I have a teacher who’s Somali or Muslim – Oh, I can do this too,’” Lightbody said. “And therefore it opens more doors and more eyes and opportunities for them.”

Temporary licenses: Accelerating former teachers’ return to the classroom

Another “sensible” way to boost the educator force in Ohio, Lightbody said, is to issue temporary licenses to retired or former teachers looking to get back into the classroom.

“If there are teachers out there that had a teaching license and left to go to another career opportunity or to stay at home to raise their children or anywhere to do something else, we could entice them to come back to teaching,” Lightbody said.

Former educators are “well-positioned” to return, Lightbody said, as they already have experience developing lesson plans, teaching state standards and differentiating modes of instruction to meet the diverse needs.

Under House Bill 554, which unanimously passed the House in late May, the Ohio Department of Education is required to provide nonrenewable, two-year temporary educator licenses to those whose licenses have expired – so long as the recipient completes either 18 continuing education units or six semester hours of coursework during the duration of the temporary license.

Current law requires educators not currently employed at an Ohio school to, prior to the awarding of a license, complete either six semester hours of coursework or a variety of professional development courses, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

“Up until now, the process to return to teaching requires you to go back to school, essentially, and get lots more coursework before you can resume teaching,” Lightbody said. “So this would allow them to do the go-back-to-school and get updates concurrently with teaching.”

‘Stopgap’ measures must be followed by permanent solutions, Coneglio said

While Coneglio commended Lightbody’s legislative proposals for making a dent in providing extra support to educators, he said “stopgap” measures proposed by lawmakers are only temporary fixes.

Adequately funding schools and teachers in Ohio — rather than what Coneglio called prioritizing tax abatements for wealthy companies over public education — should be the start to attracting future teachers, he said.

“There’s not a teacher shortage! There’s not a bus driver shortage and there’s not a truck driver shortage or anything,” he said. “It all comes down to the pay, the working conditions and things like that. If you make these things competitive, people want to do it.”