GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The leader of the nation’s largest teachers’ union projected optimism that Michigan is on the right track to fix teacher shortages.

Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, visited Grand Rapids City High School and Grandville Middle School on Wednesday morning. She was joined by Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madaferri and other school administrators.

“Folks said, ‘Becky, you have to go to Michigan because they have some exciting things going on in Michigan,’” Pringle told News 8.

Grandville Middle School is a brand-new building at 4900 Canal Ave. SW, right before the high school. The $57 million project was made possible by voters approving a bond proposal in 2019.

It opened to students this month. As they walk through the school, they will come across a first-of-its-kind robotics center for the school’s renowned program.

“This is the voters of Grandville saying this is important,” the team’s teacher said Wednesday. “This is important to us to do STEM.”

While school districts prioritize STEM programs, they need teachers. Many districts across the state don’t have them.

U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, who attended Wednesday’s tour, told News 8 that it’s been clear districts across Michigan are experiencing teacher shortages.

“They can’t take it anymore,” the congresswoman said. “The politics, the lack of pay, the increased demand on their personal resources to pay what they need in their classroom.”

Scholten said the shortage is hurting students.

“We are seeing students who are entire grade levels, sometimes two, behind in core subject matters,” Scholten said. “We have to bridge that gap.”

Pringle told News 8 that teachers have “always filled in the gaps for our students.” But she said the barriers created by the pandemic only made things more difficult, exacerbating a pre-existing teacher shortage.

“We have been losing teachers at the front end of their career and in the middle, which is really concerning for us because those are the mentors for the new teachers,” she said. “Even at the end of their careers, we have teachers who are retiring early because of the stresses of teaching.”

Pringle said teachers in some districts have also taken on the responsibly of helping students with mental health issues.

“For them to think they have to do that alone, they know they don’t have the time built into their day to do it, so they’re taking that time after school,” she said. “They have families of their own they’re trying to raise.”

She argued that schools need more professionals across the board so teachers aren’t taking on as much burden.

“We need more counseling,” she said. “We need more bus drivers to get our kids to school.”

Fewer people are entering the field than a decade ago. State data shows between 2008 and 2016, enrollment in teacher preparation programs fell by 66%.

The National Education Association polled teachers nationwide recently and 55% said they plan to leave education. Many blamed low pay, Pringle said.

“When our new teachers get in and they’re ready to start a family or buy a house, they realize, ‘I can’t do that if I don’t have professional pay,’” Pringle said.

Michigan ranks 39th in the nation with a $38,963 average teacher starting salary, according to the National Education Association. The average teacher’s salary is just about $65,000, which is the 16th highest in the country.

“We have to make this profession or these jobs very highly competitive,” said Chandra Madafferi, the president of the Michigan Education Association. “That’s very important to attract the best and brightest people into teaching.”

“People need to know when they go to college to become an educator, whether it’s a counselor or a social worker or a teacher, that they can support a family,” she continued. “A great living wage.”

Grandville Middle School is at full staff, the school’s principal confirmed to News 8. Still, he said fewer teachers are applying.

About four years ago, the district would get about 130 applicants for a position, he said. Today, schools get between 30 and 50.

Other districts have it worse.

“There are many schools that don’t look like this and they need resources,” Madafferi said.

Despite that, Pringle and Madafferi are hopeful Michigan is on the right track toward resolving teacher shortages. The new state budget includes $370 million supporting teachers, funding a program allowing college students to become certified teachers without paying tuition. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed bills into law in July permitting out-of-state teachers to come to Michigan schools without needing to get a new license.

“I think this year moving forward people are getting excited again about education,” Madaferri said. “May be somebody that left the profession is considering coming back to the profession. A lot of that is due to the governor’s investment in public education and our budgets.”

Scholten called the state budget historic and said districts are just starting to see how the investments in education will help them.

“Coming here and seeing firsthand this brand-new beautiful building what resources in a district like Grandville can make a difference in students’ lives,” Scholten said.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you happen to live in a great school district like Grandville, students across West Michigan and our state as a whole deserve to have high-quality education and the resources they need to succeed,” she later added.

Pringle agreed Michigan has an “exciting” future but stressed the need for additional resources to help teachers gain a better work-life balance.

“We need to talk about a sustainable career that respects them as the humans they are,” Pringle said. “They’re superhuman, but they’re still human.”