If you reach into the depths of your brain, back to the fuzzy memories of your 10–year–old self, do you remember your favorite elementary school teacher? 

Every Penn student can name at least one teacher who has helped inspire their academic drive and love for learning, playing an integral role in getting us where we are today. For Faith Applegate (C ‘25), an aspiring social studies and English teacher, this formative figure was Ms. Waters. The actual details of her elementary school education aren’t the clearest—Ms. Waters taught her “some kind of math and some kind of English”—but it’s the way her teachers made her feel that has stayed with her all these years, even if knowing how to do long division hasn't.

“Teaching is kind of amazing,” Faith realizes. “It's the profession that connects you with a classroom full of 30 young people a day. You get to speak to all of them at once about different subjects and things you can impart onto them, and you get to learn a lot from them as well.” 

For kids who are forming their own opinions about the world around them, teaching can have an incredible impact. It’s also a profession that has faced a slew of challenges in the past few decades, leading many to question how sustainable the field of education will be for teachers in the coming years. 

Faith noticed the stark absence of a community at Penn for undergraduate students interested in becoming educators, and broached this issue to fellow teachers–in–training Ivy Wen (C ‘24), and Danielle Kohn (C ‘26). Their summer internships in the Penn Program for Public Service through the Netter Center for Community Partnerships gave them the opportunity to imagine what this space on campus could look like. Since then, Faith, Ivy, and Danielle formed Aspiring Educators at Penn, a club for students who are committed to and curious about entering the field of education.

Aspiring educators like Faith, Danielle, and Ivy are few and far between at Penn. Faith describes feeling like a unicorn in a sea of 10,000 undergraduates vying for careers in medicine, finance, and engineering. Pervasive pre–professional culture dissuades students from pursuing, or even considering, positions outside the big three.

Faith was working as a move–in coordinator last summer when an older man struck up a conversation with her. The two chatted for a bit—he asked Faith what she’s studying and her plans for the future. She told him she wants to become a teacher, to which the man responded incredulously, “Oh, and you go to Penn?”

Many elite universities, including Penn, participate in career funneling—steering students towards jobs associated with higher pay and prestige—through implicit messaging and the exclusion of spaces dedicated to up–and–coming educators and other lower–status occupations at career fairs. While Career Services boasts a plethora of resources for students interested in consulting and other highly sought–after fields, advising opportunities for teacher hopefuls are strikingly sparse. 

For Sophie Gala (C ‘26), a member of AEP’s leadership board, “It's hard to separate a specific education–related stigma from just classism at Penn.” She suggests the student body largely views teaching as inferior precisely because it makes less money, lacking the value that’s placed on more lucrative, “big name” careers.

“I think a lot of Penn students use education as a way to further an application for something else,” Sophie says, while Danielle adds that even amongst those who are genuinely interested in the occupation, the majority lean towards education policy rather than a position as a “teacher practitioner.”

It can be frustrating for aspiring educators to be constantly met with patronizing phrases like “Oh, that's so good for you—I could never” or “I want to make a broader impact than that” (Faith has heard both) when discussing their future careers. AEP wants to push back against these narratives. Faith believes teaching, working with young people on the ground, is an avenue for powerful change making and developing expertise essential to larger, policy–level campaigns. 

Photo courtesy of Faith Applegate

“Teaching is a radical act, you get to be that student's primary point of contact for five days out of the week,” she says. “I think the most important part to me is the idea of mentoring students and being a constant presence in their life.”

Generally, Danielle feels teaching doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Educators spend years honing the skills required to lead a classroom, individualizing approaches whenever possible in an effort to help each student grow on their own terms. “I definitely see teaching as an art and a practice that needs to be cultivated over a long period of time,” she says.

Even Faith admits she made the mistake of assuming that years of babysitting as a teenager taught her everything she needed to know about childhood development. From making phone calls home to classroom management, teaching requires a great deal of competence and commitment that often goes overlooked.

The stigma at Penn surrounding the field of education can be understood in the broader context of what Danielle refers to as “teacher deprofessionalization.” The term encompasses prevalent social attitudes towards teaching that don’t consider it a legitimate, viable, or worthy profession. 

Teaching, a job predominantly held by women since the 1890s and closely associated with motherhood, has long been perceived as an innate vocation, rather than a serious career that is built through years of training and expertise. Public perception and institutional changes to the education field have thus relegated teaching to a “semi–professional status,” leading to teacher shortages and undermining teachers' agency in the classroom.

Teacher deprofessionalization is ultimately, “rooted in education policies that favor results over actually cultivating students as people,” Danielle explains, “and policies that actively frame teachers as the aggressors and villains in the story of education reform.”

A combination of stigma within the Penn community and the broader phenomenon of teacher deprofessionalization has contributed to a lack of adequate undergraduate resources for aspiring educators. Due to the dissolution of tracks for students to become certified while completing their degree, the future teachers of Penn have had to get a little more creative.

Although the College of Arts and Sciences no longer offers an education major, Faith, Danielle, and Sophie are working towards graduating with the urban education minor. They all speak highly of the professors and course content, but Danielle admits feeling disappointed that “the classes are very much preparing students to take on positions as policymakers rather than practitioners. Very rarely in an urban education class will you see anything that's focused on pedagogy and best practice.”

The urban education minor was originally divided into three concentrations—primary education, secondary education, and policy, research, and practice—however, insufficient interest ultimately led to the discontinuation of the primary and secondary pathways. Now, dedicated students like Danielle are left to either apply for submatriculation into the Graduate School of Education, one of the country’s leading institutions in the field, or settle for limited access to undergraduate instruction.

Jennifer Valerio, Associate Director of the Urban Teaching Residency Program and former math teacher of 16 years, is keenly aware of the disconnect between graduate and undergraduate resources. She’s spearheading an initiative to get UTR alumni more involved with the newly redone GSE, including serving on panels open to undergraduates, so, “current students will have greater access to alumni for support purposes and also for really building a network where you feel like you're part of a professional community.”

Additionally, many educators–in–training take advantage of the multitude of internships and other opportunities available through the Netter Center, like the Penn Program for Public Service, which requires students to intern in a university–assisted community school program and develop a research project addressing a pressing issue affecting the West Philadelphia community. Faith, Danielle, and Ivy’s joint final paper details the inception of Aspiring Educators at Penn.

Regardless, Faith says the club is putting the greatest emphasis on building community because “resources are great and very needed, but I think the overall lack of community is what really dissuades people from going into teaching.”

Photo courtesy of Danielle Kohn

Danielle noticed that many Penn students show a strong interest in mentorship opportunities and working with children, but have never thought about becoming teachers. She says that the goal of forming AEP was to start the conversation and to get people thinking about what a professional life in teaching could look like for them.

Part of the club’s mission is also to better utilize resources within GSE. It wants to bridge the gap between the graduate and undergraduate schools by supporting more students to matriculate into the master’s program. In addition, AEP is collaborating with GSE and Valerio on a variety of teaching–related initiatives, such as the Aspire to Educate Grant, which encourages future educators of color to go into STEM teaching. 

The pathways to teaching, even for students committed to entering the world of education, are often opaque and difficult to navigate. “For undergraduate students interested in education right now, it's very ‘choose your own adventure,’” Faith jokes, “you have to go out of your way to pursue this.” Or as Danielle describes it, figuring out how to become a teacher at Penn can seriously feel like “[it’s] every man for himself.”

How does one submatriculate into Penn’s GSE program? What advisory resources exist for people interested in the teaching route? The answers are sometimes buried under frustrating levels of bureaucracy, a drainage of university funding from teaching–related opportunities, and a lack of a centralized student body for aspiring teachers. Danielle hopes AEP will be a space where undergraduates can work together to figure out these questions about the education pathway—and make lasting institutional connections so more information on the process exists for the next generations of students.

“Often when one or two people make a claim [that] we want more support for our career path, the University's response would generally be, ‘Well, there's not enough interest,’” Faith explains, “So we're trying to prove that there is student interest.”

But AEP wants to broaden the scope of their club from the career to the culture. “The other goal is also to get people to talk about … educational inequality and teacher deprofessionalization,” Danielle says, because “at the end of the day, yes, we want to encourage more people to become teachers, but we also want to encourage people to become more aware of the [educational] issues that exist right here in Philly.” 

Support for budding educators is all the more important in the face of a critical national teacher shortage. According to limited data released by the National Center for Education Statistics, 45% of public schools in the United States had at least one teacher vacancy as of October 2022. Across the country, unfilled positions number in the tens of thousands

Overworked and underpaid educators are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout, attempting to make up for learning lost during the COVID–19 pandemic and increasingly subject to political attacks steeped in fear and misinformation. When school districts get desperate, vacancies are filled by teachers who aren’t fully credentialed, but without adequate resources to help novice educators develop the necessary skills, frustration builds and the cycle continues.

Still, the teacher shortage isn’t uniform across the board. Since wealthy suburban schools can afford to offer higher salaries, economically disadvantaged school districts with higher proportions of minority students, especially in rural areas, bear the brunt of the crisis. Furthermore, math and special education teachers are in particularly high demand

The School District of Philadelphia has been hit hard by the teacher shortage—a 1.5% increase in teacher attrition occurred in Pennsylvania last year, the largest on record, for a total of 7.7%, and Associate Superintendent Tomás Hanna reported a decrease in student teachers from 1,200 to 362 at a news conference in May of this year.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Gala

Both Faith and Sophie attended public school in Philly for many years, which they believe significantly influenced their career aspirations. “It definitely sparked my passion for educational justice … having seen the inequities within my own neighborhood,” Faith says. 

Understanding the systemic underpinnings of teacher shortages in Philly is essential to Sophie. She explains that even though you’re eating the same school lunch as more than 100,000 other students, educational opportunities vary widely across the district. As Faith says, “If these extreme teacher shortages are a problem even at the best high school in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, it scares me to imagine all the other schools that are way more under–resourced.” 

Given the many challenges that teachers in the Philadelphia School District face, Faith strives to be conscious about incorporating a focus on wellness into AEP. While she’s passionate about going into the field, she’s honest about her worries about the long–term viability of teaching and the toll that being an educator can have on one’s wellbeing—financially, emotionally, and even physically.

Faith wants people in the group to be able to navigate the real challenges that come with teaching and working with kids. “A huge personal question of mine is how to make the teaching career sustainable, because many, many people agree it's not—low pay, extreme burnout … you wear so many different hats throughout the day; you're tasked with so much,” Faith says. “I would love to stay in the career forever, but it just seems like it's so unsustainable at the moment.”

Contrary to popular belief, Faith recognizes that teaching is a career with a huge direct impact, precisely one of the reasons she’s so drawn to it. At the same time, she wants to help make change in the education field to address the systemic issues that are making teaching a profession that people don’t think they can afford to consider. 

Faith also spends a lot of time thinking about social justice–rooted practices she can implement in her own classroom. She’s particularly interested in restorative justice, an approach to addressing harm that focuses on generating accountability from the person who committed the harm and encouraging the people involved in the conflict to come to a meaningful solution together.

“I do remember it always being fairly punitive when students had behavioral issues,” Faith says. “I’m interested more in exploring the concept of how to teach kids and students, not just, ‘you did something wrong, you're gonna get punished,’ but ‘you did something wrong, and we're going to work on the ‘why.’’” 

These changes to traditional forms of discipline in the classroom are part of a growing movement among teachers in the Philadelphia School District. Implementing restorative justice and trauma–informed practices in schools is one of the demands for “radical education transformation” that local organizations like Racial Justice Organizing advocate for. From AEP to teacher coalitions in Philly, educators are reimagining a more accessible, equitable, and sustainable system. 

Sophie says that her memories of impactful teachers stay with her today, inspiring her to create a positive difference through initiatives like AEP and over the course of her future career. “[I realized] how powerful a successful learning environment can be,” she says, “the more that I dive into it, the more interested I am.”