Student organization aims to combat state’s teacher shortage

July 31, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Payton Steensma in her classroom
Payton Steensma is a first-grade teacher at Wheeler Elementary School in Millard. She said Educators Rising helped her build connections with other future teachers. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

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With summer coming to a close, Payton Steensma’s classroom is ready for students to return.

Steensma knew she was meant to be an educator, especially with her memories of playing make believe as a teacher when she was a kid. Now, she teaches real first graders at Wheeler Elementary School in Millard.

“It was almost like a calling,” she said. “It's not really a job. It's like a way of life.”

But even with some teachers like Steensma passionate about their work, there were still over 700 teaching positions that were vacant or filled with an unqualified individual last year, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.

However, a student organization called Educators Rising is trying to help fill those positions by taking a unique approach - starting in schools.

The organization got its start in 2015. Steensma said it was something she took advantage of when she was in high school.

“Those connections that I made with other future educators just kind of helped me realize how important that networking and support system is, and wanting to be that for other teachers,” Steensma said.

Steensma's Classroom
Payton Steensma's first-grade classroom at Wheeler Elementary in Millard. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

The organization teaches students the skills needed to become teachers, like how to create a lesson plan. Students must be enrolled in a human sciences and education course within the state’s Career and Technical Education program before joining Educators Rising.

Eric Snyder, Nebraska’s advisor for Educators Rising, said students don’t have to complete the classes before joining, but they need to start learning the fundamentals.

“What Educators Rising is doing is enriching what they’re doing in that classroom,” Snyder said. “If they’re coming in without that knowledge from the classroom, they’re not getting the full concept of what the whole program’s all about.”

Outside of classes, Snyder said Educators Rising offers competitions, conferences and experiences to develop different skills.

“We're trying to cultivate those students into thinking more naturally and being, hopefully, more qualified to be a teacher within the state of Nebraska — high quality teacher in the state of Nebraska,” Snyder said.

Students within the organization learn more than just how to be teachers. They also discuss the different challenges facing education today, including burnout, lack of diversity and low salary.

Milan Aranda is a recent high school graduate from Omaha and the national president for Educators Rising.

While Aranda hopes to teach in Nebraska, she never had a teacher of color. As a Hispanic student, she said this lack of diversity has negatively impacted her.

“I would hear a lot of racial comments towards me,” Aranda said. “It was just really negative. I want my students to have a safe place and someone they can feel a connection with.”

Aranda said while Educators Rising can’t increase teacher salaries, they do focus on making sure everyone feels accepted in education. The students in Educators Rising focus on recruiting people of color and different genders to join.

Ubah Ali, a senior at South Sioux City High School and the state president for the organization, said diversity is one of her top priorities, with a focus on immigrant communities.

“The biggest part is that there’s huge differences in communities in terms of the way they understand or the way they look at education,” Ali said.

She said immigrant communities, like her own, don’t see education as a viable career. Educators Rising is hoping to help change that.

“Being in competitions and being good at it, I would say, or showing some sort of success in terms of that has gained a lot of attention within our community, and parents have been encouraging their students to be in education,” Ali said.

Ali says Educators Rising helped her overcome her own fear of teaching, and now, she plans to teach in Nebraska.

Another issue contributing to the teacher shortage is burnout. Aranda said having relationships through Educators Rising helps combat any burnout and loneliness.

“I can always rely on them,” she said. “We can steal ideas. They’re always willing to help.”

Aranda and her peers aren’t just stealing ideas from each other, but also discussing the larger issues in education and debating how to fix them.

Snyder said he observes these discussions and is encouraged by what he hears.

“I really feel our future is really in good hands because they see what needs to be done,” he said. “They have opinions of what can be better, and how this can be better. It’s just fun, and these are just kids.”

While Educators Rising helps some students pursue education, it helps others realize they don’t want to teach.

Nancy Burkhart, an Educators Rising advisor from 2015 to 2017, has seen many students become teachers, but others who didn’t. Burkhart said Educators Rising helps students explore if education is the right path for them.

“I always tell my students, if you don't think you want to be a teacher, this is a place to figure it out, and don’t waste your time,” Burkhart said.

For Steensma, the first grade teacher in Millard, Educators Rising was definitely worth the time. She now helps teach her students with an Educators Rising club in her school.

“It all starts with teachers, even just teaching students how to greet somebody or how to share and get along with others and use their voice,” she said. “It all starts in the classroom.”

About 50 students were in Educators Rising at Wheeler Elementary last year. The students received “teacher” pens and clipboards at their final meeting of the school year, which was a future teacher appreciation day.

Those students may only be playing teacher now, or perhaps they will be like Steensma and grow up to become a real teacher.