Whether it’s a veteran teacher or someone entering the profession, school districts in New Jersey are getting back to recruiting basics by showing candidates the money.

West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District is taking a particularly innovative approach by using district funds to offer a stipend to student teachers through The New Teacher Program, which will begin at the start of the fall semester for the 2024-2025 school year.

Dr. David Aderhold, the district’s superintendent, knew he had to get proactive about filling teaching spots as numerous staff members are approaching retirement. “We have a huge number of folks hitting 30 or 35 years of experience,” he said. The stipend program is a way to attract the best candidates and develop a relationship with them before anyone else, he said.

Aderhold, who served as co-chair of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force as well as on the Governor’s Task Force for Public School Staffing Shortages (which also included Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of the New Jersey School Boards Association), is well-versed on staffing challenges.

“Although the elimination of edTPA was a great move forward in attacking the teacher shortage, the problem is much larger than simply eliminating a test,” Aderhold said. “WW-P administration, led by Charity Comella, assistant superintendent for personnel, began looking at the staffing shortage much earlier in the human resources pipeline and saw an opportunity in the student teacher step of our recruitment process.”

Exacerbating the teacher shortage is the fact that area colleges and universities have eliminated certain teacher preparation programs, and enrollment in teacher programs is down overall, Aderhold said. Teaching simply was not an attractive field to pursue during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put particular pressure on school districts that would normally have a larger pool of teaching candidates to hire for the coming school year, he said.

The New Teacher Program will offer student teachers a $5,000 stipend, which could turn into $10,000 in certain instances.

“We have said $5,000 should be the expected award,” Aderhold said. “In some unique circumstances – it could be economic challenges, hardships or earning a specialty certification, we would look to go potentially higher.” Payments will be made by WW-P to the program participants in two payments during their student teaching (Clinical II) semester.

Potential student teachers must apply to the program, and not every student teacher that works in the district will necessarily receive a stipend. But the district is going “all in” on the initiative and expects to offer a stipend to about 20 student teachers, Aderhold said.

While some may balk at the notion of paying student teachers, it’s the right thing to do – and it will ultimately save the district money, Aderhold believes.

“From a recruitment standpoint, if we are able to bring in new graduates on the beginning of the salary guide, the money we spend we will get back relatively quickly with respect to what we would have had to spend bringing on candidates higher up on the guide,” he said.

Earlier in Aderhold’s career, it was fairly easy to hire teachers just starting out, he said. But now, it’s typical for districts to have no other choice but to hire a veteran teacher who must be paid more.

“Some may say, ‘How can you find those dollars?’ and they may be hiring teachers at step eight, step nine and step 10,” he said, noting that the move is part of a long-term strategy to get the salary guide where it should be over time.

Student teaching is also a heavy financial burden for most students to confront, said Comella, who in addition to being WW-P’s assistant superintendent for personnel is the president of CJPRIDE, a consortium of school districts that highlights diverse candidates for K-12 teaching positions across New Jersey. “WW-P is hoping The New Teacher Program stipend will help student teachers to defray the costs of living expenses, tuition bills, transportation, etc. during this time,” she said. “It is our hope that by assisting our student teachers with these costs, we open the door to the education profession to new teachers who may have seen a semester of student teaching as something to which they were financially unable to commit.”

Student teachers who receive a stipend will not be penalized if they are offered a job by the district and decline to accept, Aderhold said. But they will be required to apply for open positions, he said.

“We just want to make sure we are thinking differently about our recruitment strategy, how we recruit candidates into the profession and how we build relationships with student teachers, so that when they graduate, they are thinking about working with us,” he said.

However, given WW-P’s focus on professional development and workplace culture, Comella is convinced that the student teachers accepted into the program who are offered jobs will accept them and thrive with the district. “We have hired from other districts, but we haven’t seen many staff members leave for other districts,” she said. “If they leave, it is usually because they are retiring or getting a promotion to be a supervisor or assistant principal, and that may be why they leave.”

Applicants to The New Teacher Program must answer four questions by video as part of their application. Those questions are:

  • Explain why you feel that your major of study at your current university qualifies as a high-demand teaching field for students in WW-P.
  • Describe your unique perspectives and background that you feel will enhance the social, emotional and educational experiences of students in our district.
  • Share why you chose to major in education and how teaching is a reflection of your aspirations.
  • Is there anything else you’d like the selection panel to know about you in consideration of being selected for The New Teacher Program for WW-P?

Shortly after the application was made live, 26 candidates had applied, Aderhold said.

“These are students in their junior year of college, most of them have not student taught yet and they are still on their education journey,” Aderhold said.

As for who gets offered a stipend, the district is looking at hard-to-fill areas and all the nuances that go along with that description. “If you find someone who has a special education degree who can teach fifth- to eighth-grade science, there are not many candidates in that area,” Aderhold said. “We are going to be looking for candidates who can make a future contribution to the school community.”

The district will also look for students who have a “good sense of who they are as an educator and a learner,” Aderhold said. “That shines through in their responses and how they answer questions.”

Those selected will be required to attend at least three of four professional development sessions in the evening. “From a strategy standpoint, we want them to have a little skin in the game and make a commitment to us in the evening – and that also gives us the opportunity to build a relationship,” Aderhold said. “We have a dynamic teacher induction process, and we will use some components from that program.”

Selected applicants must possess their New Jersey substitute teaching certificate, must follow all state, university and school district polices and requirements and will be required to submit a criminal history background check and health form. As per the New Jersey First law, teachers must become a New Jersey resident within 12 months of being hired or apply for a waiver, but that does not apply to student teachers.

Students accepted into the program will be guaranteed placement as a student teacher in the district.

While students from any college or university are welcome to apply for the program – even those in Pennysylvania – the reality is most candidates attend local institutions, such as Rider University, Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey.

WW-P has made it a point to let its staff know that if they have a relationship with a professor or particular teaching program to send information about The New Teacher Program to them to spread the word.

The district intends to continue The New Teacher Program moving forward, Aderhold said. “Our vision of this is not a ‘one and done’ but part of a future strategy,” he said.

“It’s like a grow your own,” but instead of starting with high school students, the district is seeking ways to make teaching at the district more attractive for students further along the path to becoming a teacher, Comella said.

The board of education has been incredibly supportive in making The New Teacher Program a reality, Aderhold said. “We have been transparent with the challenges,” he said. “When this idea was presented to them during a budget retreat, there was unanimous support … we worked through the legality and how to structure it, so we are not hurting scholarships,” which is one of the reasons it settled on the “stipend” language.

The teacher shortage will not be going away soon, and the problem must be solved in a way that prevents school districts from competing with each other, Aderhold said. “We need to invest and put state dollars around some of these initiatives,” he said. “College is extraordinarily expensive, and if you are asking students to give a full-time commitment and stop their work to do student teaching … often, they are struggling to make ends meet.”

New Jersey would be well served to look to Pennsylvania and what it is doing in this area to attract more students to consider a career in teaching, Aderhold said, referencing the Pennsylvania Student Teacher Support Program, which provides $10,000 to student teachers who meet program requirements. An additional $5,000 is available to student teachers working in high-need areas; and a grant payment of $2,500 may also be available to the student teacher’s cooperating teacher.

Comella agreed, noting that “morale in general to go into the field is not like it used to be for numerous reasons.” She added, “Incentivizing people to go into education is critical.”

“At the end of the day, we want them to exit student teaching feeling good about the experience and thinking about WW-P as a potential place to be an educator,” Aderhold said.

Participants in WW-P’s New Teacher Program may also be eligible for an additional $3,000 stipend from the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

WW-P student teachers are not considered WW-P employees and will not accrue time toward tenure or be enrolled in the Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund during their student teaching semester.

Sign-On Bonuses Catching On Some other school districts are taking a more head-on approach to solving teacher shortages by offering sign-on bonuses to qualified teachers who can start  right away.

Take Camden City School District, which serves 15,000 students attending 20 elementary/family schools, one middle school, two traditional high schools, two magnet high schools and one nontraditional high school.

Starting with the 2023-2024 school year, the district began offering certain teachers $10,000 sign-on bonuses to say “yes” to taking a teaching job.

Tyra Jenkins, manager of recruitment and staffing for the district, said that the teacher shortage isn’t just a problem in New Jersey – it’s nationwide. It became more challenging to find enough teachers coming out of the pandemic, she said.

“Teachers were remote for the most part … and some of them did not want to go back into classrooms, so we saw a drop in applications,” she said. “Teachers were jumping out of the education field and going into other fields, where they could work remotely.”

Jenkins gives all the credit to Camden’s leadership in deciding to institute sign-on bonuses to motivate “the best and brightest teachers” to join its district. “We are using a portion of the funds from our current budget to offer this incentive as part of our plan to aggressively recruit for these hard-to-fill positions,” she said.

The district will continue the program for the 2024-2025 school year, she said. “The sign-on bonuses are for hard-to-hire positions, such as science, math, word languages, ESL and bilingual and special education and health and physical education,” she said.

From an HR perspective, Jenkins said it is an easy decision to offer bonuses to qualified applicants. “Some other school districts are starting to do the same thing,” she said. “And for us, it has gotten a lot of publicity.”

For the 2022-2023 school year, about 20 new hires received the $10,000 sign-on bonus incentive, with that number doubling to 40 for the 2023-2024 school year, Jenkins said.

The bonus is not paid out all at once. “We can’t do that because people would take the $10,000 and leave,” she said.

Rather, payments begin about 30 days after a new hire starts working with the district. After two years, the bonus is fully paid, she said.

The fact that Camden offers $10,000 to certain teachers sets it apart from some other districts, she said. “Our board has been supportive of this incentive program and with our efforts to try to find the right quality individuals to teach in our district,” she said.

While Jenkins would love to offer sign-on bonuses to everyone, she emphasized it is only for high-need areas – although that hasn’t prevented other candidates from asking about the program. “I think they understand – although I don’t think everyone particularly likes it,” she said. “We wish we could pay everyone more money, especially teachers who may have left and gone to other districts for a salary increase. And some who have started working may be upset that we did not have this three years ago. But overall, it has had a positive effect.”

The teachers that have taken advantage of the sign-on bonuses won’t regret working in Camden, Jenkins said. “It’s a great place to work,” she said “We offer competitive salaries, we offer competitive benefits, and we offer great incentives. We just have a great atmosphere and are trying to pull the best teachers. We have the best students in the state of New Jersey, so we want the best teachers teaching our students.”

Other districts are also employing sign-on bonuses.

For instance, New Brunswick implemented a sign-on bonus effective in December 2023, which is set to expire in June 2025 under its current contract, according to Zuleima I. Perez, the district’s director of human resources.

The bonus is up to $5,000 and paid in increments, with 50% being included in their first check, 25% being paid at the start of year two and the remaining 25% being paid at the start of year three.

“If they resign prior to completion of the three full years, they are required to pay back the bonus received so far,” she said. “This bonus is for science, math, bilingual, ESL and special education teachers.”

The district had recently hired about 10 staff members who were eligible for the bonus, with the majority being in special education, she said.

Elizabeth Public Schools, New Jersey’s second-largest school district, also was recently promoting a $5,000 sign-on bonus. According to an advertisement for a May job fair, the sign-on bonus is for bilingual, ESL, special education, English language arts, science and mathematics teachers.

Sign-on bonuses have not had the desired outcome for all school districts, however.

In August 2023, Paterson Public Schools ended a sign-on bonus program that had awarded $7,500 each to 181 new hires. The program started in September 2022, and the bonuses were paid over two years. The district paid about $1.36 million in bonuses with federal COVID relief funds, according to published reports.

“It simply became too expensive and wasn’t as effective as we hoped,” Dan Juan, a district spokesperson, told NJ.com.

Other districts, however, have seen better results.

Jenkins, for instance, thinks other districts should “absolutely” consider awarding sign-on bonuses to attract teachers.

“Teachers are shopping around and comparing to decide what district they should go to,” she said. “I know it plays a factor with them coming to work with us. With this economy, we often need an extra boost.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.