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Every student, no matter how old he or she is, generally has a favorite teacher.

It’s the person who inspires them and pushes them to be the best student and person possible. It’s the one who helps everyone, who always seems to have the right words to cheer someone up and who has all the right tools to make a bad situation just a little bit better.

Having qualified teachers makes the education system better, particularly in Columbus, a town with a diverse population, particularly a growing Hispanic population. Unfortunately, Nebraska students aren’t looking toward teaching careers as they have in the past.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education, the number of students looking for education degrees in Nebraska higher education over the past five years has dropped by 20 percent. The drops increase to an even steeper 50 percent when one looks over the past 12 years. It’s a situation that Nebraska State Education Association president Jenni Benson hopes to tackle in coming years, thanks to new programs designed specifically to recruit students into teaching careers.

“We start with our Educators Rising program in the high schools,” Benson said Tuesday afternoon. “We follow them through to college and then we have a mentoring program, it’s called the Next Generation Educators of Nebraska, where we are following them through their first few years as well to say, ‘What can we do now that we’re here to help you stay here?’”

The initiatives began thanks to a grant from the National Education Association in 2015, which provided more than enough money to support teacher recruitment programs like Educators Rising, an organization which has received limited funding from NSEA in the past. Starting with five chapters when the program first began, there are now 30 Educators Rising chapters across the state of Nebraska. One of them is in Columbus and was founded three years ago, said Sandi Seckel, a second-grade teacher at West Park Elementary School.

“We have over 500 students in Nebraska now participating in Educators Rising,” Benson said. “We support them in their local chapters.”

Educators Rising is largely aimed at groups that are underrepresented in the teaching field like African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups. With the Hispanic population periodically increasing Columbus, Benson said she feels that a program like Educators Rising could help bridge a gap between Hispanic students and their teachers.

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“We are always looking at the diversity and our teachers of color to make sure that we have that in place for them and try to recruit those (future) teachers of color,” Benson said. “Nineteen percent of our population across the state is ethnic minorities. Only 3 percent of our teaching force is (an) ethnic minority. If kids see themselves in their teachers, thinking about becoming a teacher, (it) opens it up a little bit more. If you don’t see yourself in your teacher, sometimes you think, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if that’s really something I could do.’”

People who participate in Educators Rising have the opportunity to attend state and national conventions, showing off their aptitude for a career in education. Many of those who attend will be the first people in their family to go off to college, which could eventually lead to a pipeline in which a first-generation minority student eventually becomes that favorite teacher for someone looking for their role model.

“About 40 percent of the kids we’ve had at our state convention for (Educators Rising) have been students who are ethnic minorities,” Benson said. “That’s a pretty good percentage. A lot of them are first-generation college students, and we need to really help them understand what it is to go to college and what does it look like to continue. We have a lot of people in Nebraska that start college, but a lot of them don’t finish. We want to make sure that we are there to support them all the way through.”

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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