Workforce trends point to a looming teacher shortage in California, meaning the supply of instructors to inspire the next generation is in serious danger. The problem is hardly limited to the Golden State, however. Data from a recent Learning Policy Institute report suggested that by the 2017-18 school year, a lack of qualified teachers would result in about 110,000 vacancies nationwide. Unfortunately, education wages haven’t necessarily been increasing with the demand, and in 2018, the median teacher salary for elementary educators with a bachelor’s degree came in around $58,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factor in job-related stressors of standardized testing, helicopter parents, and increasing class sizes, to name a few, and you may be wondering, “Is being a teacher worth it?”
National University alum Cassie Olinski doesn’t hesitate when she answers: “One hundred percent.”
The California teacher enters her fourth year on the job this fall. She began her career teaching special education kindergarten but this semester is moving schools and roles — taking on a special education role serving fourth- through sixth-graders.
For Olinski, the decision to become a teacher had very personal roots.
Her original career plans involved pursuing a nursing degree. But marriage to a man in the military brought her out to California and a bundle of joy soon followed. At 18 months old, her son, who was diagnosed with auditory issues, entered an early-childhood special-needs program. Olinski saw a wide spectrum of abilities on the campus which served children from infancy up to pre-school.
“I got to see all of these different children, they were all special needs. And I just fell in love.” The decision to change course was an easy one. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Once she had decided on her path, National University was there to ensure she met all the requirements she needed to become a teacher in California —± plus a few extra skills to help her succeed.
Olinski’s journey toward a special education career put her on a path that too few of her peers today plan to follow. In December, the Education Week Research Center reported that the number of special education teachers nationwide had decreased by almost 20% over the last 10 years.
“There are days that are really hard,” Olinski says, adding that now divorced, the pressures of single parenthood make the financial aspect of her life particularly challenging. But she never finds herself asking, “Is teaching worth it?” She is sure it is. “I love what I do. I wouldn’t change it. Even the hard days, when I’m physically and mentally exhausted, I love seeing progress in the kids.”
It helps that Olinski earned her undergraduate degree in early childhood education immediately followed that by pursuing her master’s degree in special education. The master’s degree adds a couple of hundred dollars a month to her teacher salary.
But Olinski says the added financial reward isn’t nearly as valuable as the contacts she made as a student or the qualities National helped instill in her — qualities that were essential to her success as a teacher.
“A Collaborative Family”
Olinski recognized the value of her National University connections even before she officially hit the workforce. While she says her undergraduate work provided insight into typical students, it was the on-campus experience of her graduate focus on special education that has proven so essential to her current career.
“I didn’t want to go on campus because I’m a single parent and it’s hard,” Olinski says of her time attending National University’s Rancho Cordova satellite. But the interactions she had with her fellow students — all of whom were teaching different age levels — provided camaraderie and support when a demanding day left her feeling defeated and wondering, “Is being a teacher worth it?” There was always someone there to help her get her mojo back. There were always stories to commiserate over and fellow would-be educators with whom to collaborate. “It helps to realize that it’s hard everywhere, that we’re all having these different struggles. You can say, ‘OK, it’s not just me.’”
Olinski credits the professionalism of the National staff and their encouragement, as well. “I always felt that everybody at National wanted me to succeed. It wasn’t like any other college I had been to. It was more like a collaborative family.”
National provided her with the opportunity to test her skills in a classroom in a full-time student teaching assignment. Although Olinski submitted her lesson plans to her mentor at National, when she was in front of the students, she was on her own, running all the aspects of classroom management and handling all the individualized education program, or IEP, meetings. The internship provided valuable exposure to the realities of teaching, but with the support and collaboration of her program chair.
Olinski says she was encouraged to ask questions of the National staff – and they answered her without judgment. “They don’t judge you because they know you’re new and you’re figuring it out and they want you to succeed.”
“I loved my instructors,” she continues. “They were all open and helpful, too. I still text some of them when I have questions.”
Flexibility and Fairness
In addition to the mentorship support the education faculty provided, Olinski also appreciated their understanding when life got in the way of assignments.
“Your school days are going to be so busy and chaotic,” Olinski says. “But the people who are teaching you understand what you are going through.”
Olinski says her instructors understood that her role as a student-teacher often left her physically drained and mentally fried. On the rare times she found it impossible to push through on an assignment, they provided compassionate flexibility by giving her an extension on her deadline or helped her talk through her workload.
“You could really put your all into the kids and still have a chance to get your brain back in order,” she says. “You could go at your own pace. If something wasn’t going to work, they took the attitude of, ‘Let’s figure out a way to make it work for you.’”
Collaboration with both fellow students and her instructors not only buoyed her spirits after a rough day but also helped her strategize and think creatively about the classes she was teaching.
“They were so open,” Olinski says, recalling how she could discuss specific issues with her program chair. As a newbie teacher negotiating multiple students — all with different needs — Olinksi sometimes struggled with understanding how to help one student without diminishing the needs of another.
Her mentor was able to give practical advice that Olinski could take back to her classroom. “She knew the different types of autisms and understood the different types of kids because she has done it all and taught for so long,” Olinski explains. “She gave me great feedback on how to group them all and work with them all as one unit. It was a huge help.”
Olinski has carried that creative thinking forward into her current career.
“In special ed, you have to be able to see outside the box,” she says. “To help them, you have to be able to recognize, ‘I just did this with them and that didn’t work. So, what can I do differently?’ If you’re very stuck on a certain path — ‘This is what I do and they need to do what I do,’ — then it doesn’t work, especially with special ed.”
Olinski often finds herself modeling the compassion she felt from the National faculty when she was an overwhelmed student teacher. “You have to have the perfect balance of loving and firmness because these kids need to understand that life has boundaries. When you tell them, ‘That’s not a choice,’ you have to be able to really stick to that because if you give in, they realize there’s no boundary there. And then when someone does give them a boundary, then they push it.”
Enforcement of boundaries is only part of the recipe. Sometimes, her students react to her boundaries with a meltdown. It is during these moments when others might ask, “Is being a teacher worth it?” that Olinski says that providing support becomes crucial.
“You have to be able to build them back up again when they have finally released all that is inside them when they have a full breakdown and they are crying and they’re on the floor. You have to show them that you’re there and you care.”
Olinski finds herself echoing the guidance of her National instructors and asking her own students, “How can we change this next time? What can we do differently?”
Meltdowns, Olinksi explains, are frequently a product of the child’s frustration. Understanding what they are frustrated about and how to help can vastly improve behavioral issues and clear the path for learning.
That’s when the magic happens, Olinski says. That is when everything starts to click.
In her most recent year of teaching, she had her first student who was very low on the autism spectrum. He was essentially non-verbal, and didn’t respond to typical directions or even to his own name.
His frustration was palpable, Olinski says, and found its way to the forefront via behavioral problems and physical aggression. Olinski said it was heartbreaking to witness. “He would bite himself or he would bite other people. He would scream or cry and he couldn’t explain, couldn’t tell us what was wrong.”
Olinski put on that creative thinking cap she had forged at National and began utilizing a Picture Exchange Communication system, also known as a PEC. Using images affixed to Velcro, this student is now able to use pictures to make his requests and be understood. It all began with a single request from a single picture — for blue M&Ms. But once he realized he could be understood, it was like watching the lights turn on from within.
“It was such a great moment for him,” Olinksi recalls. “You could see the excitement internally in him — ‘I can tell them what I want and I get it!’”
By the end of the year, he could create sentence strips of the images. And more than being able to communicate his own needs, he was also beginning to comprehend what others needed from him. His behavioral issues began to subside.
“I am super excited to see where he can go and hopefully get all of his needs met as he increases his skills,” Olinski says.
Engagement Tricks of the Trade
Not every breakthrough is quite so dramatic, Olinski says, but even the little ones quiet the tough days when others might question, “Is being a teacher worth it?”
Her mentors at National taught her the value of observation and tricks of the trade she could use to help her students invest in what they are doing and be totally engaged.
“You can tell right away by their backpack the things they’re really into,” she says. If a child really doesn’t want to do math, for instance, the key is to find something that they’re very interested in — and the answer is often in the things they carry or wear. Many of her students really enjoy the video game Minecraft, so if those same students seem bored or reluctant to add or subtract, Olinski can work characters from the game into her lesson.
“I’ll say, ‘OK, we’ve got five Creepers and here come two more. Now they’re all around you. How many Creepers are around you?’”
The students will get excited to find the answer because they are so interested in Minecraft, they forget they are learning.
“They’re doing math without realizing it because it’s hidden in something they’re really interested in,” she says. “I use that quite a bit with my kiddos.”
Just Do It
Olinski has never regretted her decision to pursue a career in special education, or her decision to go to National University to prepare for it. She sailed through her online undergraduate degree in early childhood education and then went straight into her master’s degree — joining National’s 150,000 global alumni when she graduated in 2018.
“I knew if I stopped, I wouldn’t continue because I would really enjoy that break,” she explains. She worries that many adult learners bypass the opportunity to earn a degree — and the potential higher salary that comes with it — because of misconceptions about the time commitment required.
“It doesn’t take long to get your degree,” she says. “It goes so quick, and then you’re done and you can support your child and you don’t have to worry about school. You can just continue with your life. And now you’ve got a better job because of your degree.”
Once that degree is in hand, there will be days when even veteran teachers ask themselves, “Is being a teacher worth it?”
Olinski never wavers. “100 percent.” Even, she adds, when it’s hard.
“Don’t give up when you have the hard days. Everybody has hard days,” Olinksi promises. “Don’t feel like a hard day means that you’re not good at what you do or that this isn’t the path for you. Just keep going forward. You’ve got this.”