TAMPA — Thunder rumbled dimly through the thin classroom walls. A dozen future teachers settled into silent reading time, with selections ranging from One Special Elephant to The Girl on the Train.
Instructor Gretchen Dodson paced, encouraging her pupils at the University of South Florida to share the ritual with their own students one day.
"There comes a moment when there's almost a magical buzz in the room," she promised, "but it's a silent buzz, and all you hear are pages turning."
It was 5 p.m., mid monsoon, mid summer, and many seats were empty — a common sight these days in teacher preparation programs around the country, including USF's College of Education. Many of the students in Dodson's classroom said that they often meet skepticism when they share their career dreams.
"Really?" people ask them. "You want to be a teacher?"
Between standardized tests, stagnant pay and crowded classrooms, teaching has become a political battleground. Since 2010, enrollment in teacher prep programs has plummeted 42 percent nationwide. At USF's college, a major supplier of local teachers, enrollment has dropped 40 percent — despite local districts desperate for teachers.
"Even elementary teachers I had were like, 'Don't do it, it's getting worse,' because of the politics behind it," said elementary education student Taylor Snipes, 19. "They feel like they don't have as much control in the classroom as they used to."
Amid the decline, USF leaders stepped back late last year and took stock of the college, which was struggling to find its way after losing its dean and many professors. Besides a full closure, the options were open. The college could be demoted to a school, reducing its on-campus clout, or it could have its curriculum overhauled. Whatever the outcome, USF would have to make up for lost time.
"Some colleges of education have managed to transform," provost Ralph Wilcox said. "We, along with some other institutions, were a little slow adjusting to that."
An internal committee drafted a sweeping review, revealing muddled goals, a generic vision and a leadership void that USF hopes to right with a new dean.
The report laid out a road map to the college's future in this tough national climate.
"It was spot-on," longtime professor Joan Kaywell said.
In the wake of the Great Recession, an unprecedented 220,000 education-related jobs were slashed, according to the Center for American Progress. The vast loss upended the image of teaching as a stable career.
Classrooms got more crowded. Resources got thinner. Job satisfaction dropped. Meanwhile, the debate over standardized testing and curricula raged on.
"Boy, it seems like a tough, tough choice to be a teacher now," said William Law, outgoing president of St. Petersburg College. "Not everybody is cheering for you, you've got students who are harder to teach, they come from more disparate backgrounds, you are under the microscope."
When school districts became desperate to fill vacancies, alternate certification became a popular, backdoor path to the classroom — so much so that, at a job fair this month, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego noticed an array of age and experience that would have been shocking 10 years ago.
Colleges of education can only control so much, but USF needed to make a change, Wilcox said. Still a relatively young university, it couldn't simply lean on its endowment amid the slump in enrollment. It had to adapt.
A first step is searching for a new dean. The college's last leader, Vasti Torres, resigned in 2016 after pushing a reorganization that created dysfunction and loss of productivity, according to the internal report.
"We had an unfortunate leader," said Kaywell, who plans to apply for the dean job. "She led with fear, threats and fear, as opposed to somebody who taps into the mission and passion of teachers."
In an email, Torres said she was faced with challenges from day one at USF, when she was handed a $2 million budget cut due to low enrollment. Further cuts led to loss of faculty and low morale.
Despite the climate, Torres said she encouraged and respected faculty leadership. She turned the reorganization over to a faculty committee and implemented their ideas, she said. Meanwhile, she said, she presented ideas from other colleges grappling with enrollment issues.
"It was up to the faculty to enact changes that could attract more students," she said. "My experiences as an academic leader illustrate why these positions have become unattractive."
Going forward, the committee recommended a leader well-versed in digital education who can build camaraderie. It also suggested another stab at a reorganization, this time focusing on faculty strengths that set USF apart.
"Was the curriculum meeting the contemporary needs of our students?" Wilcox said. "I think it's pretty clear that it's not."
To boost enrollment, the report said, the college should offer more online programs, increase study abroad opportunities and train students in STEM and the latest technology. It also should comb through programs to make sure they're all relevant.
For a university that runs on data, the college lacked clear metrics tied to USF performance goals, the committee found. Faculty should be involved in creating new benchmarks, they said. Also, the college's generic mission statement needed a rewrite, incorporating local priorities, such as urban education and digital learning.
Other proposals said USF should increase research capacity and redouble its marketing and retention efforts to try to capture students. It also would help to work with other colleges at USF, Wilcox said, instead of toiling in isolation.
Just as USF's education college is seeking its niche, other local schools are devising ways to combat enrollment troubles. At St. Petersburg College, where enrollment in the College of Education is down 27 percent since 2010, the new Elite Educator program guarantees students a job in the Pinellas County School District.
"I wanted to ensure individuals coming out of universities were really highly prepared," superintendent Grego said.
Grego specified certain skills he wanted in teachers, such as better training in math and experience with English language learners. SPC worked those qualities into its four-year program, which Grego praised as a model for other colleges.
Local school districts are so hungry for teachers that they're making pitches to high school students, enticing them with talk of summers off and steady employment. They're taking costly trips to recruit out of town.
Taylor Snipes needed little convincing. She and her USF classmates, though there are fewer these days, are believers in the power of teaching, despite the downsides.
"We're not getting paid enough to cover the time that we spend, not just in the classroom, but grading, making lesson plans, getting supplies for students," said Emily Castoria, 22, the daughter of a teacher. "But I hope when I'm old and retired, I will think about all of the kids I've reached and changed their lives."
Snipes did try a different path, but compared to teaching, pediatrics felt too impersonal.
"You don't get to bond with the kids," she said. "You just check their vitals. You're in, you're out."
Snipes worries a bit about what lies ahead. She's still figuring out where's she's headed next. But she feels like she's learning the right things, so she'll be ready.
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321.
Declines in college of education enrollment, 2010-16
University of South Florida: 40 percent
USF St. Petersburg: 15 percent
St. Petersburg College: 27 percent
Nationwide*: 42 percent
Sources: USF, USFSP, SPC, U.S. Department of Education