I used to think the teacher shortage was more of a statistic than a reality. Sure, I believed it was happening in other schools. But I have been relatively unaffected in my own professional life (thank goodness!). This year, things have really changed for me. The teacher shortage is affecting my own school and the school where I worked last year. Now that it’s affecting kids and staff that I know personally, I can see clearly: The teacher shortage is very REAL.
As you’ve seen on Stories from Schools AZ this month, I’m not the only one thinking about the teacher shortage and working conditions. Mike Vargas wrote about the shortage of physics teachers, Chris Marsh wrote about teachers on the brink, and Mike Lee proclaimed, “the bad things are here.” Given my own experiences with teacher shortages recently, I have to agree. The bad things ARE here.
I’ve taught preschool special education for seven years now in Title I schools. I work at a great campus with terrific leadership in a wonderful neighborhood. Despite these qualities, we are short one preschool special education teacher on my campus. We have three developmental preschool programs and only two certified teachers. Administrators have been aggressively searching for a qualified teacher since August, but there just aren’t candidates. To make matters FAR worse, we haven’t been able to find a regular sub either. For preschool kids who need consistency, it’s highly disruptive to have a different sub every day. Last week, there was no sub at all! For four days, we split the students from the third classroom into our other two preschool classes. This created stress and behavior problems that continue to linger in my classroom this week now that things are back to “normal.” It’s hard to have any kind of normal when you’re on the front lines of the teacher shortage.
It’s not just my current school either. At my last school, they are short three special education teachers on a campus with five special education positions! One of the vacant positions is my old classroom. My heart aches so much for the kids and staff I left behind. Even though they have a talented long-term sub, she cannot write IEPs for the students. That burden falls on one of my old colleagues who is carrying a double caseload: her own students and my old students. Another colleague there has carried a double caseload for two years because there was a long-term special ed sub last year and the position is still vacant. In my opinion, two special education teachers simply cannot manage five caseloads of special education students. It’s like trial by fire. Can we keep asking teachers to make these personal sacrifices just for the “love” of teaching? At some point, teachers in these circumstances start thinking about other careers.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about my own experiences and the changes in working conditions since I entered the profession. When I first started teaching twelve years ago, there were so many supports on my elementary campus. There was a school counselor, a part-time police officer, and a part-time special education clerk who contacted families and filed paperwork. As school funding has decreased, these positions have been eliminated at most public schools. Does that mean that schools cease to need counselors, officers, and special education clerks? No. Certainly not. It means that educators have to take on these roles—creating unhappy working conditions because there aren’t enough hours in the workday. These unhappy working conditions come alongside larger class sizes, more assessments, and additional job responsibilities like after school tutoring programs. When I think about the teacher shortage, I think it’s relatively explainable: There are few sane people who are willing to do an insane job. I think that improving working conditions is the only way we are going to turn the teacher shortage reality into the reality our kids deserve: fully staffed schools.
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