They say there’s nothing like learning on the job. For future teachers, that means gaining experience inside the classroom.

Abby Higgins, a masters student at SUNY Plattsburgh’s branch campus in Queensbury, has immersed herself in a first-grade class at Stillwater Elementary School. She’s part of the Classroom Academy, a union-backed program spearheaded by SUNY Plattsburgh.

“We are in a paid placement while also taking classes and working on our degree, so by the time our two-year placement is over, so is all of our classes,” Higgins said.

It gives her hands-on experience with a full-time teacher, similar to a medical residency program. This allows her to help with assignments, grade papers and build relationships with students.

As teachers continue to adapt to the pandemic, she’s also proven herself critical to academic success.

“She is so helpful with the students. If I’m missing out on something, she jumps right in,” says Madison Ramnes, the teacher alongside whom Higgins works.

Statistics show enrollment in state teacher education programs decreased by more than 53% over the past decade. At the same time, about a third of teachers are eligible to retire in the next five years.

But according to NYSUT, the Classroom Academy has its largest number of participants this school year. With the looming teacher shortage, that’s good news.

“If you can be a good teacher right now given the circumstances, you can be a good teacher when we don’t have to wear masks and aren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” says Ramnes.

That’s advice Higgins says she is holding onto.

“If you can come in and enjoy your job now, there’s definitely hope that things will look up one day, so just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” said Higgins.

Higgins has year and a half left of her placement. Then she’ll graduate with her masters, before leading a classroom of her own.