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Students at VTSU Offer Solution to Teacher Shortage: Pay Student Teachers

McClure VTSU story

VTSU students Megan Rippie and Kyle Wu are both student teaching this spring in pursuit of their teacher licensure. 

A new pilot program funded by the McClure Foundation provides student teachers at Vermont State University with a living stipend.

This spring, Megan Rippie will graduate from Vermont State University (VTSU) with a degree in Inclusive Childhood Education and a recommendation for licensure with endorsements to teach elementary education and special education in Vermont. She will, no doubt, be highly sought in Vermont’s public school system, where there are projected to be 7,850 job openings for K-12 teachers over the next decade.

Despite promising job opportunities, excellent grades, and the fact that Megan has always wanted to teach, stress and uncertainty over the unpaid student teaching semester she’s completing at Cambridge Elementary School this spring threatened to dampen her excitement.

“My practicum fall semester was four days a week, plus classes and homework, and I worked eight to ten-hour shifts on Fridays and Saturdays,” said Rippie. “I knew I couldn’t do it again, not with a full-time student teaching position, but I needed to pay for my car, health insurance, Wi-Fi, and groceries. That was my biggest fear.”

Relief came while Megan was stocking produce at Hannaford’s one evening. She ran into Hannah Miller, associate professor and co-director of the Inclusive Childhood Education program at VTSU, who informed Megan that her expenses for the semester would be fully covered by a new pilot offering a living stipend to VTSU student teachers. “The stress just left my body,” said Rippie.

Removing barriers to make postsecondary education the easy choice

The idea for the stipends, funded by the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, came from students on the VTSU Johnson campus who, for a class project, identified the unpaid student teaching semester as a significant factor in equity and a barrier to program completion.

“We were getting signals that this was needed from many directions,” said Miller, “most importantly from students. For someone who has to support their life financially, being asked to work full-time in the classroom as a student teacher without compensation is a barrier. It’s an unpaid internship that is not possible for students who need to prioritize work over their education. It’s heartbreaking.”

Paid internships are increasingly understood as a tool to promote equity in many sectors. A few states including Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, and Maryland have introduced legislation to compensate student teachers. “If the long-term goal is educators from a variety of backgrounds, then we need to remove financial barriers,” said Miller.

The McClure Foundation, with a mission to make postsecondary education the easy choice, provided VTSU with $50,000 to launch the pilot. 34 students applied for and received aid for the spring 2024 semester. Miller is hopeful that the pilot will provide insight and evidence for a stipend program to be permanently funded in Vermont.

“I want to be the teacher I needed”

Kyle Wu wants to be the teacher he needed in high school. Half Chinese, Kyle says he experienced a sense of isolation attending North Country Union High School where almost all the other students, teachers, and faculty were white. “No one had a name like mine,” he said. “It was just me and the owners of the local Chinese restaurant making up the entire Chinese population.”

“What I want to do is reassure students who feel like their identity is holding them back,” said Wu. “I want to show them that it’s not their identity–they are who they are, they should embrace that. Nobody should have to shove aside their race or identity to fit in. I see so much of myself in the students. I want to be there for people who need it.”

That includes providing a role model for male students, who increasingly lack male teachers in Vermont and around the country. In 1980, men accounted for 33 percent of K-12 teachers in the U.S. Today, that’s down to 23 percent, a decline that is impacting educational outcomes, the achievement gap between boys and girls, and college attendance according to author and Brookings Fellow Richard Reeves.

Prior to receiving the stipend, Kyle was working 40 hours a week doing night shifts at Shaw’s grocery store while attending school. Some nights, he would get back to his apartment at 2:00 a.m. and then get up for class in the morning. “It was a lot,” he said. “When I found out about the stipend…I don’t think I’ve been that happy in four years. I felt such a weight off my shoulders. My mom was so relieved too. She could see how hard I was working and at some point, it’s just too much.”

Like Megan, Kyle is using the stipend to cover groceries, gas, and internet at his on-campus apartment. The time he would have spent working at Shaw’s is now focused on his history curriculum at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax, where he is student teaching. “It’s going great,” he said. “I’m a better student now. I get to teach things that I’m really passionate about. A lot of students don’t really think they care about history. They only know what they see on TV, but they’re enjoying the class.”

Solving Vermont’s teacher shortage

Each year, VTSU graduates between 50 and 100 students from its education program. Many of those students stay in Vermont where they fill much-needed teaching positions and create futures for themselves. According to a recent U.S. Department of Education Report, Vermont has nearly 10 percent fewer educators than it did before the pandemic.

“The most important thing,” says Miller, “is how Vermont responds to the teacher shortage. We need excellent teachers and strong teacher education. We can keep standards high and remove barriers, including financial barriers, that are preventing students from completing their degree.”

Megan feels that VTSU has been the perfect fit and looks forward to contributing to Vermont’s vibrant special education community. “I want to stay in Vermont,” she said. “My younger brother has autism, which is why I’m so interested in special education. I’d like to continue volunteering for the Vermont Special Olympics where he is an athlete. This program has been great. It’s rigorous, well-rounded, and very rewarding. You get a lot with double licensure, and I also just love the Johnson campus. It’s very welcoming and inclusive, especially if you’re an outdoorsy person like I am.”

Megan, who was in the class that recommended the stipends for student teachers, says that she and her classmates feel a huge sense of relief. “We all want to teach and work with students,” she said. “That’s why we are here. You are working a full-time job. It’s not realistic to work another full-time job on top of it. That first real teaching experience should be enjoyable. Every student teacher should be able to feel that way—to feel excited about their career.”

About the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation

The McClure Foundation is a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation that works to close opportunity gaps in the state by strengthening college and career training pathways to Vermont’s most promising jobs.