As a career educator, it is the habit of a lifetime spent in public education to look for the lessons in all experiences. One of the lessons we are learning from the COVID–19 pandemic experience is a long overdue gratitude for the innovation, commitment and resilience of our public school teachers.
Connecticut public school teachers, like many of their colleagues across the nation and the world, had to learn new methods to reach and teach our students, quite literally overnight. We owe them our admiration and thanks. We also need to recognize that a significant reason our teachers are able to meet Connecticut’s students’ needs is fueled by the fact that we have among the most educated teaching force in the nation. While nothing could have prepared educators for what they are facing in the midst of the pandemic, their professional learning and preparation supports their ability to respond to this tremendous challenge.
Connecticut has an incredibly educated and skilled teacher work force. Even before the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation to require teachers to pursue a master’s degree in order to achieve professional educator status, the majority of Connecticut teacher pursued advanced degrees. This educational attainment is especially relevant in the current context.
Recent research provides evidence that there is a direct link between teacher learning and positive educational outcomes for students. Many teachers pursue master’s degrees in order to better serve the students in their classes. Master’s degrees in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL), Special Education, and Literacy, all refine teachers’ knowledge and skills in ways that directly impact Connecticut’s most persistent achievement gaps, that experts fear are being widened during the pandemic.
Connecticut school districts recognize and value supporting teacher professional learning. One way teachers may pursue ongoing learning and development is through attaining advanced degrees. Most Connecticut school districts provide incentives for teachers to obtain master’s degrees through differentiated compensation scales, while some provide tuition reimbursement or other incentives for further study.
A growing number of school districts have clearly articulated talent management strategies that explicitly aim to develop and retain their teaching talent through a variety of supports for ongoing teacher learning. One of these strategies is direct partnerships with universities to support teachers to pursue master’s degrees. Increasingly, Connecticut public school districts are developing partnerships with our Connecticut institutions of higher education.
Innovative partnerships often focus on areas of need for the state. For example, East Hartford Public Schools and Vernon Public Schools have talent management strategies that include partnering with the University of Saint Joseph, providing certified teachers the ability to pursue a master’s degree in Special Education Literacy. These school districts pay the tuition for these teachers and host their practical experience. This investment in teacher talent benefits teachers, students and the school district.
While pursuing a master’s degree has always been a way for teachers to become more marketable and advance in their district’s salary scale, it is clear from the patterns in Connecticut’s teaching force that our teachers are motivated by something larger: meeting the needs of their students. At USJ, many of our students are teachers pursuing their second or third master’s degree. Teachers have been investing in their own learning in order to support our students. Let’s follow the lead of districts who have found ways to support them in their efforts. Teachers deserve our admiration and gratitude, and most especially our support.
As local and state policy leaders decide how to invest COVID-related funds, remember to support investments in teacher learning and development. Most importantly, ask our teachers what they need – and listen to their answers.
Dianna Wentzell is an Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Education at the University of Saint Joseph and is the former Connecticut Commissioner of Education.