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Solving the Shortage

Through collaboration, innovation and federal funding, UCF is developing new solutions to meet Florida’s demand for educators. 

What’s required of a teacher goes beyond daily instruction and homework grading. They need knowledge, empathy and compassion for students who come from different backgrounds and have varied learning preferences. Most teachers choose the profession to make a difference in students’ lives.

A willingness and determination to explore new routes led faculty from UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education (CCIE) — most of whom are former K-12 classroom teachers — to enter academia and help address the educator shortage in the state and beyond.

Through collaboration with Central Florida districts, federally funded projects and implementation of new pathways, UCF is creating programs to incentivize and prepare more prospective educators to help meet the demand for teacher recruitment and retention.

Equity Through Certification

The Florida Department of Education recorded 4,776 teacher vacancies for the 2023-24 school year. Nationwide, it’s estimated there are at least 55,000 vacant and 270,000 underqualified positions, according to a study by researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Pittsburgh.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate degree programs, UCF is helping fill these gaps by setting up innovative pathways to provide effective and equitable ways for people who want to become teachers.

Andrea Borowczak ’92, a professor in and director of UCF’s School of Teacher Education (STE), was a K-12 science teacher, science department chair and learning resource specialist for 12 years before transitioning to higher education. As a public school teacher, she saw the importance of quality content and classroom data analysis, as well as effective communication and problem-solving. She’s using her experience to provide support for incoming STE students.

“One of my main goals is to support the School of Teacher Education faculty with opportunities to engage in important and innovative work,” says Borowczak, a science education alum. “I ground many of my decisions with the mindset of a current PK-12 teacher and what would be the most effective, efficient and engaging way for them and for STE students to interact in new capacities. I think that perspective helps us navigate new spaces.”

Through navigating those spaces, she — along with senior lecturer Elizabeth Hoffman ’83 ’94MEd ’06PhD and other STE faculty — has developed and launched the para-to-pro pathway, which prepares paraprofessionals, who typically assist instructors, to become certified teachers themselves. Hoffman further developed an earlier successful para-to-pro formula implemented at the UCF Connect Center at Valencia College’s Osceola Campus.

A team of STE faculty and staff, including Aline Abassian ’12 ’14MEd ’18PhD, Maria Busch ’89 ’95MA, Nicole Damico, Su Gao and Farshid Safi ’09PhD, launched an online master’s degree for current teachers who have a background outside of STEM subjects and are interested in becoming certified science or math teachers. The partnership is an affordable option for teachers who would like to develop knowledge and skills that serve students in critical areas of shortage.

“The world that we live in does not afford everyone the opportunity to follow a traditional college pathway,” Borowczak says. “Because of that, UCF is trying to find ways to make someone’s dream become a reality for them. … It’s very important to us that anyone who’s interested has the opportunity to be a teacher.”

Another novel way UCF is providing access to aspiring teachers is by utilizing the state’s new teacher certification pathway, which began in Spring 2024. It allows any college student in the Internship II course who has met state and STE qualifications to participate. Interns are selected by district administrators, paid a full teacher salary and are supported by faculty from the district and STE. There are approximately 20 students in the new program now.

To provide more students with on-site experience, STE is also using past grant work and research to develop a professor in practice (PIP) school concept, which would place six to nine interns in classrooms across district-identified PIP schools. One STE faculty member would work at that location, set up a space to meet with interns and interact with school personnel. The faculty member would also provide support and conduct intern observations in K-12 classrooms.

“We can’t afford to not be in the teacher retention business. We have to find ways to support, nourish and elevate the voices of the teachers that we have and encourage others to start in the field.”

— Sarah Bush, Lockheed Martin Eminent Scholar Chair and professor of K-12 STEM education

Various efforts and programs in STEM, special education and more are made to help teachers succeed.

The Teacher Retention Business

With many quality professionals already in the field, educators at UCF are also focused on retaining them. One key researcher is Sarah Bush, a professor of K-12 STEM education and Lockheed Martin Eminent Scholar Chair.

As a former middle school math teacher, Bush understands the challenges of the teaching workforce. She’s using her knowledge in the field to help educators take the next step in their careers as leaders.

“We can’t afford to not be in the teacher retention business,” Bush says. “We have to find ways to support, nourish and elevate the voices of the teachers that we have, and encourage others to start in the field.”

Her work has received over $6 million in grant funding, primarily from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), including a five-year project dedicated to increasing the capacity and expertise of K-8 math teachers to serve as leaders in their schools and districts.

The project, co-led by STE faculty Juli Dixon and Lisa Brooks ’92 ’06MEd ’14EdD, and Brian Moore from the College of Sciences, features a new specialization in K-8 math education within the curriculum and instruction doctorate program at UCF. It also includes the formation of the UCF-Orange County Public Schools Noyce Teacher Leader Academy. The initiative aims to increase the capacity and expertise of K-8 math teachers to serve as leaders in their schools and the district. Fellows of the academy are OCPS employees who are earning the specialized doctorate. Through the program, the fellows lead initiatives, supporting preservice teachers in their schools and the district, and mentoring volunteers at City Year Orlando, a nonprofit partner dedicated to student retention — contributing to a community of educators.

“[The fellows] are increasing their effectiveness [and] they are also leading, advocating and mentoring other [teachers and volunteers] in addition to the students in their classroom,” Bush says. “They’re helping their administrators with the most effective pathways for mathematics instruction.”

Industry partners are also supporting UCF’s efforts to help retain teachers through programs, which even include tuition assistance to reach more educators. Through the Lockheed Martin/UCF Mathematics and Science Academy, practicing teachers can earn their master’s degree specializing in K-8 math and science education with a strong emphasis in leadership. There’s also the fast-track, four-semester T-MAST graduate program, which allows second-career professionals to transition into sixth through 12th grade math or science teaching positions. The academy has graduated more than 650 professionals since its founding in 1992.

A Central Approach

Special education is one of the most heavily impacted areas of the teacher shortage — with students with disabilities particularly in need of highly qualified educators. During the 2021-22 school year, 32% of students receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act had a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia, according to the Pew Research Center.

The same school year, about one in five classes for students with disabilities were taught by teachers not certified in the appropriate field, according to the Florida Department of Education. A 2022 study from the Florida Association of School Psychologists also showed that Florida is only producing enough school psychologists — who provide critical aid to students with and without disabilities — to fill 25% of available positions.

UCF is helping produce more specialized professionals through Project CENTRAL, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

It’s designed to prepare special education teachers and school psychologists to work with children with high-intensity needs. The project provides funding for qualified graduate students to take interdisciplinary courses offered through the collaborative intervention specialist graduate certificate and as part of either a master’s in exceptional student education or an educational specialist degree in school psychology.

Professor and program coordinator in exceptional student education Mary Little and project co-director Oliver Edwards agree that collaborative learning and the experiences of graduate students in both the special education and school psychology programs not only provide synergistic learning and solutions, but also professional collegiality and support among novice educators. Program and course innovations are enhanced with authentic performance tasks, resources and support from educators and project advisory board members from various Central Florida school districts and agencies.

“One of our courses focuses on engaging parents and families. We want families connected to their children’s educational programming, especially families with children that have more significant needs,” Little says. “Therefore, collaboration and solution-finding extend to larger communities, including families, other educators, and local resources and educational providers. It does take a village to educate, support and sustain the students and their teachers. These professional connections also provide initial and sustained support for educators, from initial preparation through professional retention in the schools.”

The goal of the project is to prepare 24 special education teachers and 24 school psychologists to address academic goals for students with disabilities through a graduate certificate program. The degree offering includes four redesigned courses focused on shared coursework, collaborative performance tasks and applied experiences in school-based and clinical settings. The project also has mentorship components with project partners, and district and school leaders.

Although Project CENTRAL is relatively new, Little and several CCIE faculty members have been awarded more than $7 million in federally funded efforts from the Office of Special Education Programs that have demonstrated positive impact. An example is Project BRIDGES — a previous initiative dedicated to preparing professionals to work with children with high-intensity needs — which had 95% of graduates complete the program on time and 90% employed as specialized educators upon graduation. Graduates also reported job promotions to fulfilling professional and leadership positions, providing direct and indirect services in schools and districts.

A community of teachers that help other teachers.

Real-World Science Education

Su Gao, an associate professor of science education, was influenced by teachers early in her life. She followed her parents’ careers as educators, serving as a middle and high school chemistry teacher for eight years. She saw the challenges students from diverse backgrounds faced in the classroom, so she went to graduate school and earned a doctoral degree to help create curricula for teachers instructing those students.

Gao continues to impact future teachers, preparing them to educate the next generation. She is a primary investigator for an NSF grant to explore a model to better prepare future science teachers to support all students, including English learners (ELs).

In 2022 Gao, along with Professor of World Languages Joyce Nutta and Professor of Reading Education Vicky Zygouris-Coe, created Intersection of Science, Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (ISSLLA) — a project allowing undergraduate science education students to view teaching science more comprehensively. Preservice teachers in ISSLLA are expected to increase their lesson planning and teaching skills using three focuses: engaging students in science and engineering practices; providing instructional skills and strategies for scaffolding the learning of ELs at three levels of English proficiency; and integrating disciplinary literacy in science teaching.

Gao says it’s important to understand how to teach in a way that resonates with students in each subject. She looks at ways to relate science to students’ daily lives and the community. An example is seen in her curriculum design research, as she developed a project for teachers to design their course units based on the community, school district and resources available.

“We’re so close to Kennedy Space Center, and looking for water on the moon [is] a big topic for scientists now, so we started from there to try to develop a unit including the features of the moon, the surface features and the chemistry topics,” Gao says. “For example, what does the water look like in different contexts, the states of the water, how to use engineering design to find the water on the moon with different [technological] support? We’re trying to [secure] a grant to develop a STEM unit in our partnership school districts and help students learn [material] related to their life.”

Collaborating with the Community

Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Marjorie Ceballos ’00 ’06MPA ’16EdD spent 17 years working for Orange County Public Schools, where she was a middle school reading teacher and department chair. She later became a high school English teacher, then an instructional coach and district-level administrator. These experiences help her understand where schools need assistance with the EL population and inspired her to serve as the principal investigator of Project English-Learner Infused Training and Experience (Project ELITE).

The five-year, $2.6 million project started in 2022 and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, with the goal of providing professional learning and individualized coaching to promote school readiness, literacy and achievement in English learners from pre-kindergarten through third grade. This program comes at a time where 60% of Spanish-speaking students who recently moved to Florida from Puerto Rico have settled in the greater Central Florida area, and 40% are being served by local district schools, according to 2023 data from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Project ELITE has partnered with public schools in Orange, Pinellas, St. Lucie and Brevard counties and, over the five-year period, will instruct 220 EL teachers, paraprofessionals and educational leaders in a 72-hour EL professional learning program. At the conclusion of the project in 2027, the Project ELITE team will implement a sustainability framework that includes transitioning ELITE materials to project partners and preparing 40 ELITE completers to continue the professional learning program in their school districts. Through the sustainability framework, project partners will be able to extend the program in the future to meet the needs of EL students, families and educators.

In addition to instructing educators and providing support, the project aims to increase engagement across families of EL students and the community through the Bilingual Village, a physical and virtual network of schools and community partners that enables language learners to practice speaking their new language.

Ceballos and other project leaders, including Nutta, Zygouris-Coe and Professor Florin Mihai, keep lines of communication open between the community and those in the cohort — taking feedback and finding better ways to provide for the needs of the schools and educators. It was important for Project ELITE leaders to not just think about children in the classroom setting, but their entire educational experience in the school and their environment.

“From my perspective, from Project ELITE and in educational leadership, there are mechanisms that are being put in place right now that will support educator retention and counteract the teacher shortage,” Ceballos says. “Educators want to do what is best for their students to make sure that they are supporting them as best they can. Every educator wants to do that. With our program, we’re helping to build their toolbox so that they can do that, and I think that’s very empowering.”

UCF faculty members’ hard work conducting research and creating programs to solve the teacher shortage is evident in these efforts. The payoff will be a brighter future for many children across Florida — and throughout the nation.

“Educators want to do what is best for their students to make sure that they are supporting them as best they can. Every educator wants to do that. With our program, we’re helping to build their toolbox so that they can do that.”

Marjorie Ceballos ’00 ’06MPA ’16EdD, assistant professor of educational leadership