Like a well-tuned symphony, a school combines the talents of many to create a pulse of high expectations within an environment of harmony and passion. Every staff member, regardless of their role or responsibility, builds relationships, connects with students to convince them of their talents and strengths and pushes them to meet their potential, demonstrating a drive like Glenn Holland, the caring, warm demander, and passionate music teacher played by Richard Dreyfuss in the 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Staffing K-12 schools during COVID
In recent times, “conducting” school from a human resources perspective has been a real challenge. When COVID quarantines drove people away from the schoolhouse, staffing for even minimal levels of supervision was difficult. As schools rode the wave of the pandemic, K-12 took a hit in the ability to staff all of the roles that foster positive student experiences:
- Teachers were pulled from intervention services to cover general classrooms, resulting in students not receiving adequate help.
- Principals and employees in non-certified roles left their regular responsibilities to cover classrooms.
- Reports about other employee shortages emerged–bus drivers, and building and cafeteria service workers caused alarm that children would go hungry and cleaning and sanitization would be haphazard.
Routine and predictable structures, familiar people, and a safe engaging environment were lost. While people grappled with the many unknowns as the pandemic ran its course, the “knowns” that emerged should be of no surprise.
The teacher shortage is not new
The idea of a “national teacher shortage” is a localized condition that affects districts in different ways–and some districts more than others. A March 2022 Chalkbeat article indicated “teacher resignation rates actually dipped after COVID first hit schools. As this school year approached, departures generally returned to pre-pandemic levels.” This is a good sign, but it does not alleviate the longstanding problem.
Concerns about the teacher pipeline are real and complex, but they’re not new. This was a well-documented and looming concern before the pandemic, so no one should be surprised. Post-secondary institutions sounded the alarm years before the pandemic reported alarmingly low enrollments in teacher preparation programs. This is particularly so in content areas such as math, science, and special education. Talent interested in these fields tends to choose higher-paying careers rather than settling for typical teacher wages.
The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C. think tank tackling topics such as teacher preparation, pay, equity, and diversity, summarized the state of the states in a December 2021 release. The extent of the national problem is difficult to pinpoint because of the absence of reliable state data. Meanwhile, many schools deal with staffing concerns every day as attempts are made to solve problems that may not be clearly identified.
Could it be that COVID amplified issues that existed before the word “pandemic” became part of our daily language? What used to be important to talk about is now urgent to do.
How are some districts addressing the teacher shortage?
Offering higher salary
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently published a report citing the need to raise K-12 salaries to stabilize and grow employment in the education sector. EPI suggests the use of ESSER funding to provide a down payment on investing in the education workforce. No doubt this is needed, but local, state and federal governments must have a long-term plan to cover the ongoing costs. The idea of higher wages to attract top talent in the field of teaching has been proposed before; this is the same song as before with simply a different verse.
Hiring from within
School districts have partnered with unions, colleges, and universities to create alternative pathways to foster their teacher workforce from within–tapping people currently working in a different capacity for the district. This is a wonderful opportunity, but this can’t be the sole strategy for fixing the teacher shortage. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the needs are greater than ever: the work is more complex, students have missed learning opportunities, and the workload is higher than ever.
Getting creative with their emergency response
In areas where staff shortages exist, leaders must stitch together an “in-the-moment” solution to meet the needs of the students for that day, week, or longer. This often results in provisionally certified or non-certified staff members willingly pitching in to ensure a safe and orderly classroom as the first order of business, followed by attempting to address the continuum of students’ learning needs as they pace through the content. Revolving doors create chaos and disharmony. This comes with a cost–high-quality teaching takes a backseat and adds to the conditions contributing to the ever-increasing achievement gap.
Supporting students’ social and emotional needs
Another area that is contributing to the challenges of operating an effective school is the shortage of roles that support the delivery of services to students beyond the classroom. These include school psychologists, social workers, mental health professionals, and guidance counselors among others. This is also not new! These areas were in high demand prior to the pandemic and with the pandemic-induced levels of trauma experienced by students and their families, as well as staff, the needs in these areas are greater than they have ever been.
It goes without saying that when students’ social and emotional needs are not being adequately addressed, their academic progress suffers. They have difficulty concentrating and applying themselves in the classroom. At times, unmet social, emotional, and psychological needs translate into disruption in the classroom. Not only does this create hardship for the students, but these conditions add to the already stressful job of being a classroom teacher. These circumstances add to the reasons why the teaching profession may not be an attractive career.
Teachers certainly support the needs of their students in a multitude of ways but they are not mental health professionals or social workers. The support of professionals who are experts in those roles is a necessity, but here again, shortages continue. The K-12 sector does not offer the pay that other sectors offer who need the same professional services, and like the teacher preparation pipeline, the number of people who desire to serve schools in these professions is declining.
The circumstances we find in schools during this post-pandemic period have illuminated problems identified before the pandemic. Now, the needs are more urgent than ever thought possible. Effective schools are created by the human spirit: staff who believe in the potential of every student, leaders who ensure that skilled teachers are supported with the right resources and support to do their jobs, and districts that aggressively build systems and programs that support schools in the execution of their responsibilities. Optimal focus and execution surround students in a learning environment that is safe and orderly, focus on teaching and learning and builds a caring school community. Right now, the school environment is fragile.
Years ago, a principal colleague had the mission and vision for his Title I school captured in the motto, “Learning for all–whatever it takes” printed on letterhead. Much like Mr. Holland, he was the conductor of the orchestra who spent tireless energy making those words come alive within the school setting. He magically found the talents of each staff member and placed them in positions where they could enable students to focus on meeting their potential. The staff worked as a team understanding each other and the needs of each student to build an optimal, caring learning environment where students transformed into scholars understanding that they had a role in defining their own destiny. Teacher attrition was low, morale was high, the work was hard, and the rewards were great.
Will decision-makers define the destiny of K-12 using a “Learning for all–whatever it takes” motto? Will they move beyond talking about what’s important to acting on what's urgent? Effective schools in the post-pandemic era will have to address unprecedented levels of need.
With an achievement gap evident going into the pandemic, it's incumbent upon schools to seek newer, more effective strategies. The question remains:
Will proper resources be made available to identify, sustain, and build effective schools that
…Fit the post-pandemic needs of students?
…Enable highly-trained staff?
…Provide environments where all students experience high levels of energy, commitment, and true innovation?
Only time will tell.