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Florida universities and school districts are partnering to attack the state’s teacher shortage. Is it working?

More time in the classroom, plus a paycheck: How USF prepares elementary teachers

Sydney Melvin is helping 4th graders at Daughtrey Elementary
Sydney Melvin is helping 4th graders at Daughtrey Elementary.

The lights are off in this fourth-grade classroom, and Sydney Melvin is opening the blinds.

Sunlight has a calming effect and helps her students focus, Melvin explains.

"Sometimes we’ll open the windows and get natural light in, just because the fluorescents can be kind of harsh on us, and on them, for sure," she said.

On this Thursday morning in January, Melvin is working as an intern at Daughtrey Elementary School in Bradenton. She's a senior at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, and this internship is one of the required clinical experiences she must complete as part of the undergraduate education program.

It’s literacy week, and Melvin is wearing pajama pants to encourage her students to cozy up with a good book.

"I’m the teacher who’s on the floor with them, writing their homework with them," she said. "I'm dressing up, because I want this to be a fun space for them, so I really prioritize that, for sure."

This full-time internship with the School District of Manatee County — which began paying interns last year, at $15 an hour — is an example of how public universities and school districts in Florida are working together to try to mitigate the ongoing and pervasive teacher shortage.

Throughout the state, there are more than 4,000 open teaching positions — and elementary schools teachers are among the hardest to recruit.

READ MORE: Free master's degree entices dozens of special ed teachers, but Florida needs thousands

In our monthslong statewide reporting project Role Call, WLRN is doing a deep dive on government-funded incentive programs that aim to reverse the trend, to evaluate if they're making a difference.

"Ultimately our goal is to change the messaging of education to that of a first-rate profession, a profession that gives to our community and beyond, to affect change."
Cheryl Ellerbrock, USF Sarasota-Manatee campus dean of education

Together, USF and Manatee County schools utilize paid classroom experience as a tool to prepare and inspire new teachers. It's funded by the school district.

"If you want to train teachers for the profession and then also have them stay, they need to understand the realities of their work environment," said Cheryl Ellerbrock, dean of education for USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus.

"You have to prepare those individuals in the field just like you would prepare the nursing profession in the field. … We have a clinical space that we need to engage with and work with hand-in-hand, and that takes partnerships with school districts and the community to make that happen."

This partnership takes a “grow your own” approach, in hopes that students like Melvin will stay and teach in Manatee County upon graduation.

In 2023, at least eight out of 10 students who participated in the paid internship program stayed in the district.

From 'the assistant' to 'Miss Melvin'

It wasn't until sophomore year of college that Sydney Melvin decided teaching would be her career. But she always knew she wanted to help people.

"And as I matured and got older, I was thinking about, what can I do that would have the biggest impact on my community, as well as the youth?" she said.

USF intern Sydney Melvin at Daughtrey Elementary School in Bradenton.
Octavio Jones for WLRN
USF intern Sydney Melvin at Daughtrey Elementary School in Bradenton.

She tried babysitting and working at camps that serve students with special needs.

"My love for children just grew through that, and that’s how I ended up here," she said.

She is excited about her future in the classroom, but others haven't always shared in that excitement.

"I think teaching definitely has a stigma around it," she said. "You say you want to be a teacher, and the next question is: Why? Even sometimes with people who are already teachers, when I tell them I am pursuing education, there is the why?

"I try not to let the comments about money or, like, 'find a rich husband' get to me, because I know this is definitely where I’m supposed to be," she said.

"I think teaching definitely has a stigma around it. You say you want to be a teacher, and the next question is: Why?"
Sydney Melvin, intern teacher

In a survey conducted by WLRN of more than 100 education majors at public colleges around Florida, 55% said someone had discouraged them from becoming a teacher. The survey included responses from students in USF's College of Education as well as those enrolled at Miami Dade College and Palm Beach State College.

Ellerbrock, the USF Sarasota-Manatee education dean, said changing the narrative around teaching is part of the challenge of addressing the shortage.

"Ultimately our goal is to change the messaging of education to that of a first-rate profession, a profession that gives to our community and beyond, to affect change," she said.

Manatee is one of only a few districts in Florida that pay student interns. Neighboring Sarasota County does, as well, and Pasco County offers a small stipend. In an email to WLRN, a representative from Florida State University’s College of Education said the school places student interns in Sarasota specifically because of their paid internships.

Even with that paycheck coming in, though, Melvin also works as a bartender and at a coffee shop. She lives with her parents.

Sydney Melvin is teaching this class of 4th graders how to find the mean.
Octavio Jones for WLRN
Sydney Melvin is teaching this class of fourth graders how to find the mean.

Teacher salaries are up in Manatee County — with a starting salary of nearly $58,000 a year — but the cost of living in the area has risen in recent years, as well. Melvin said that's "a little bit daunting."

She added: "I work three jobs, just to prepare for when I do, inevitably, become a teacher and move out."

Nearly 70% of respondents to WLRN's survey referenced pay as one of the biggest challenges they anticipate in the field.

Throughout her internship experience, Melvin gradually took on more responsibility. By April, she was the primary teacher in the class. And by then, she'd also ditched the pajamas.

"I’ve had control for … a good month and a half," she told WLRN during a follow-up reporting visit in the spring. "Having that control is very transformative. I have learned so much, and I think dressing like a professional is a big part of feeling like a professional. And as a 21-year-old coming into my profession, that’s something I value."

For this math lesson, Melvin is passing out large sheets of paper that she lays on the floor. She counts off the children into groups and then hands each group a few sleeves of Oreo cookies. Their task is to see how many Oreos they can stack on top of each other before the tower falls. They'll do this four times and then find the mean of their answers.

Miss Swanson is helping her students build Oreo towers and their math skills.
Octavio Jones
Nicole Swanson, a 15-year veteran teacher, working with students building Oreo towers and their math skills.

Now, Melvin said, students are "seeing me as the teacher and not just seeing me as the help or the assistant."

She said: "They come up to me, [saying] 'Miss Melvin, Miss Melvin, Miss Melvin,' which feels very validating to me and makes me very happy."

Her mentor teacher, Nicole Swanson, a 15-year veteran, said Melvin's confidence has grown over the course of the internship.

"I’ve just seen that spark develop since she started out the year," Swanson said. "She’s just going to do a really great job as an educator, because her desire to help the kids is just really, really, really deep."

Melvin said then she was feeling ready for her own classroom. And she'll have it soon.

Starting in August, she'll be teaching fifth grade at Palmetto Elementary — right here in Manatee County.

Listen in to Thomas Burt's third-grade classroom in Bradenton.

An alternative path — and a return to tradition

During college, Thomas Burt also worked at camps and coached kids' sports. And although he considered pursuing a degree in education, he ultimately got a bachelor's in communications studies. He admits he was swayed by those close to him, who discouraged him from teaching.

“There’s a whole lot of factors at play, too. You’ve got people pulling you in different directions, saying, 'Oh, you’re going to want to make this much money,' and so I did let that influence me," he said.

Thomas Burt is a third grade teacher at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton.
Octavio Jones for WLRN
Thomas Burt is a third grade teacher at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton.

But, after he graduated, he decided to get his temporary teaching certificate, which, in Florida, requires a bachelor's degree, but not teaching training.

After working as a substitute teacher for a while, he realized he needed to go back to school if he wanted to take teaching seriously.

“Immersing myself into that environment and into that profession was definitely a wake-up call,” he adds. “It’s like, this is definitely something you’re passionate about and it’s your calling — but you also need to do your part of professional development and know that you’re doing the job the right way.”

So, he enrolled in the master’s of teaching program at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

“It's hard to describe and put into words, but I feel like there’s this role that I need to play, and I just embrace it head on as just being positive, just radiating positivity.”

Thomas Burt, teacher and former intern

During his final semester, fall of 2023, he got a paid internship at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton. Some of his classmates who taught in other districts did not get paid for their field experiences.

“I think that is something that’s really unique about Manatee County. And I’m proud that they provide that for their full-time interns, because it is a lot of work," he said.

Midway through his internship, he was offered a full-time teaching position, and has been working here ever since, teaching third grade.

That makes Burt a success story; in his case, the internship program worked exactly as intended.

Terra Brown, assistant director of professional learning at the School District of Manatee County, said the practical skills interns gain not only enable them to become highly qualified teachers but also to stick with it.

“They’re interacting with our teachers, they’re interacting with our administrators and building those authentic relationships," Brown said.

A majority of current teachers in Manatee County are alternatively certified — meaning they didn’t get a degree in education but rather got their teaching certificates via another route. Brown told WLRN that’s a problem. Alternatively certified teachers do not receive instruction in pedagogy or classroom management skills, and as a result, they tend to leave the profession sooner, Brown said.

Children line up inside a classroom as an adult watches.
Octavio Jones
Thomas Burt is a third grade teacher at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton.

Burt said the internship taught him the importance of “managing behaviors, managing procedures, and having a structured schedule" and helped him realize that "whatever energy I’m giving off is what the students are picking up.

"So, if I’m flustered and I’m frustrated and maybe acting impulsively based on my frustrated emotions, that throws off the entire environment of the classroom,” he said.

Burt is one of three male teachers at this school. Across the nation, men make up only 20% of elementary school teachers.

“I think there is a role that opens up when there is an absence of male teachers,” Burt said.

“It's hard to describe and put into words, but I feel like there’s this role that I need to play, and I just embrace it head on as just being positive, just radiating positivity.”

He gets emotional when he talks about his students.

"They’re the reason why I do look forward to going to work every day," he said.

"I’m really lucky. I’m really blessed.”

This story is part of Role Call, a WLRN project produced with support from the Education Writers Association.

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel discovered public radio during a road trip in 1994 and has been a fan ever since. She has experience writing and producing television news. As a freelance reporter for WLRN, she hopes to actively pursue her passion for truth in journalism, sharpen her writing skills and develop her storytelling techniques.
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