By MADISON BROWN
As K-12 students returned to public schools last week, local school districts remained short-staffed amid a nationwide teacher shortage.
Though every school district has been affected by the shortage, outlooks for this coming school year vary across the Fredericksburg region, with Stafford reporting 4% of its teaching positions unfilled on the first day of school, Fredericksburg reporting 5%, and Spotsylvania at 6%.
“Teaching is a hard job,” said Charles Rudolph, a veteran history teacher at Chancellor High School. He’s watched many of his colleagues leave the school over the past two years. “It’s pressure-filled, and some folks are feeling a little burnt out. There’s a lot of demands. It can be a very rewarding job, but it’s also a very difficult job, and some people decided to just pursue other endeavors [….] I’ve lost long-term friends who were colleagues.”
To understand what’s causing the teacher shortage and what it will mean for local students, Fredericksburg Today spoke with education leaders across Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford.
When did this shortage begin?
The shortage gained attention in early 2022 as the ‘Great Teacher Resignation’ began to make headlines and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, released a survey which found that 55% of teachers were planning to leave the profession sooner than expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But public school staff shortages are nothing new, according to Stafford Schools’ Chief Talent Officer, Patrick Byrnett. Suburban districts like Stafford have struggled to fill teaching positions for the last 5 to 10 years, but the numbers have gotten significantly worse since 2020.
“Teaching has always been a hard job, but it’s been really hard for the last two years,” says Byrnett. “Unfortunately I think some of the public dialogue around that has made this incredibly rewarding and joyful job feel less appealing.”
Though the pandemic may be driving a mass resignation, the shortage is compounded by a dwindling supply of fresh faces into the profession which far predates the ‘Great Resignation.’ The number of students enrolled in teacher preparatory programs declined by 35% between 2010 and 2018, a phenomenon an NPR article seven years ago called “the canary in the coal mine” for the upcoming teacher shortage. In Virginia, signs of a coming crisis caught lawmakers’ attention as early as 2017, when then-Governor Terry McAuliffe created the Advisory Committee on Teacher Shortages to investigate and develop solutions for the growing issue.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, there were 1000 vacant teaching positions across the state, an already untenable situation according to the University of Mary Washington’s Dean of Education, Peter Kelly.
“These are jobs that were unfilled or filled by long-term sub, something other than a fully licensed teacher,” Kelly explains. “For a couple years in a row there were 1000 [vacancies]. And there was alarm in the state of Virginia, because there are implications for students in those classrooms if they’ve got something less than a qualified teacher. The number [of statewide vacancies] this year is over 2500.”
What’s causing this shortage?
A frequently cited culprit is low pay. Nationally, teachers’ wages are 19.2% lower than comparably educated workers in other industries; this wage penalty is highest in Virginia, where teachers earn 32.7% less than non-teacher college graduates, per the Economic Policy Institute.
In an August 8 Spotsylvania School Board meeting, board member Rabih Abuismail pointed to these nationally low wages as a primary cause of local teacher vacancies. “This school board as a whole has already taken the first step to addressing the teacher shortage by modernizing the teacher pay scale. Do I think it’s where it needs to be quite yet? No. Did we take the first step to do something about it? Yes.”
Spotsylvania’s FY23 budget includes a 9% raise for teachers. Fredericksburg teachers will receive a 10% increase this year, and Stafford’s budget will implement raises ranging from 5% to 19.5%. But with the U.S.’s consumer price index up 9.1% from last year, these raises may not do much to improve teachers’ financial situation.
“I do feel like that [raise] was a first step. I don’t think that’s it. I don’t want to take credit and say, ‘oh that’s it, we can stop there.’ But that was a first step to get the ball rolling, at least,” Abuismail said. “We have to fight for the rest of the money to make sure it’s actually there.”
But insufficient pay is only a part of the problem. The same NEA survey that warned about teachers’ intentions to leave their positions found that low pay was the fifth most “serious” concern among educators in the union.
Dean Kelly points out that teachers have been expected to take on too many extra responsibilities.
“There’s this perception that schools have become remarkably unsafe places to be. We have pretty good evidence to suggest that you’re more likely to be shot at home than you are at school, but it’s hard for people to think about, you know, am I going to have to take a bullet for my student?” he explains. “Increasingly, teachers have been seen as part of the solution to violence in schools, gun violence in particular. Some states have – Ohio’s one of them – where they’ve shortened the amount of time to train teachers to carry weapons in schools. I think that’s a bad idea, state police organizations think that’s a bad idea, I’m not sure that’s gonna make schools safer. And it makes teachers nervous.”
In addition to acting as classroom law enforcement, Kelly says, teachers face increasing pressure to address student’s psychological needs. “We had an epidemic of anxiety and depression and mental health issues amongst K-12 students before the pandemic started. Those were issues we were talking about: how do we prepare people to be teachers with trauma-informed teaching, trauma-informed care and practice as part of the work we do because we know that students are coming in with lots of issues and trauma. That was before the pandemic – the pandemic has certainly exacerbated those issues as well, so the social and emotional needs of kids are really intense.
“Lots of hats… The hat rack in a classroom has just gotten really enormous for teachers, so that’s challenging for them. And these are people who are drawn into this work because they care about other people, so there’s this sense of mission and purpose that drives us in the work that we do. But it makes it hard for us as well.”
A 2022 Gallup poll found that K-12 educators were the most burnt-out professionals, even beating out doctors and nurses.
“Lots of hats… The hat rack in a classroom has just gotten really enormous for teachers.”
And while schools are short on teachers all across the country, local circumstances and policy decisions do affect the character and severity of the shortage at home. Fredericksburg’s, Spotsylvania’s, and Stafford’s proximity to Northern Virginia counties make it particularly difficult to remain a competitive option for teachers entering the field.
“As much as we [in Stafford] have worked in the last several years and several superintendents to increase the pay that we offer to our teachers – we think we’ve made a lot of progress on that score – people can still make more going a little further north,” says Byrnett.
Abuismail, who in Spotsylvania’s August 8 school board meeting emphasized that the staff problem is national and not the fault of any school board policy, does note that “we have lost teachers, when it comes to pay, to the northern counties.”
Fredericksburg officials have felt the crush of this competition too, with the district’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Sue Keffer, saying the city is “very focused on being more competitive with our northern friends.”
The city lost teachers after a delay in state funding caused teachers to seek work in neighboring districts, according to superintendent Marceline Catlett.
“What happened this year was that because the state delayed our budget, that impacted our budget and because the competition was eager, the month of May put us into a crisis and we had teacher flight like we’ve never seen before going to other divisions,” Catlett explains. “That’s when we pulled together as a team, went to City Council, and where we were going to give everyone 6.5%, they found money for us to give teachers 10%, and that slowed that down tremendously.”
In Spotsylvania, Kelly worries uncertain leadership may also exacerbate the shortage.
“I’m really eager to see stabilization within the Spotsylvania schools’ leadership, and with their school board,” he says. “I think they face significant challenges in trying to recruit people to the work as a result of some of the unsettled leadership. They don’t have a superintendent, an assistant superintendent, or an HR director at a time when they’ve got great shortages. So it’s really hard to look ahead.”
What will this mean for my student?
“The biggest concern right now, of course, is class size,” Spotsylvania’s interim superintendent Kelly Guempel told the school board.
The county is implementing a virtual learning program that allows teachers to instruct two classes at once, a practice which has been tested in the governor’s school program for years.
“We say virtual, but it’s not sitting-at-home-on-the-couch virtual,” Guempel says of this hybrid model. “You’re in a classroom, there is a teacher in there with you but it’s being taught by somebody in another location.”
In both Spotsylvania and Stafford, teachers are being asked to cover classes during what would have been their planning blocks. “We pay [teachers] for this,” says Byrnett. “But they voluntarily give up their planning period for this. That’s tough. It’s a lot for them to take on, but those students are then still having a fully licensed teacher.”
This creative use of staff is necessary to ensure every class is covered. But Kelly worries such adaptations will detract from students’ experience and increase the pressures on teachers which are already driving people away from the field.
“Class sizes are getting bigger, and that makes it harder for teachers to provide individual attention to the students that they have in their classroom, at a time when their needs have escalated,” he explains.
It’s less clear whether the hybrid two-classroom approach will work well. “It’s a new model, and we don’t have a lot of evidence to support one way or the other whether or not it works,” Kelly says, “but I think it does make it really challenging to meet the needs of the students in the [virtual] classroom. It’s a difficult way to go.”
Additionally, all of the local school districts have hired teachers with provisional licenses and long-term substitutes to cover classes this year. In Fredericksburg, recruitment efforts focused on ‘career-switchers:’ candidates who have a four-year degree but are not certified to teach.
“There was a point in time where we might look at [a candidate] and say, ‘they’re not certified to teach.’ Now we look at them and say, ‘what can we do to get them certified to teach?’” says Keffer. “We’ve built a library of praxis practice manuals that we’re offering to folks if they’re willing to come in and take the praxis test in order to get certified. So we’re doing what we can to support folks, both to get them here and to get them licensed if they’re not.”
Kelly stresses that classrooms covered by long-term substitutes – who do not need a college degree in the state of Virginia – and other professionals who are not fully certified may see worse academic outcomes for their students.
“A teacher is the most important influence in the learning outcomes for their students in a classroom,” Kelly explains. “It’s more important than class size and a number of other variables. So there’s a lot of students who are not going to achieve the learning they need to achieve over the course of that school year. And the implications of that over time are gonna be – I think they’re gonna be dramatic.”
“There was a point in time where we might look at [a candidate] and say, ‘they’re not certified to teach.’ Now we look at them and say, ‘what can we do to get them certified to teach?’”
But as long as they stick around, Guempel says, these provisionally licensed teachers and substitutes can become great certified teachers.
“When you hire somebody who’s unlicensed, they can become your students’ very favorite and best teacher because they bring oftentimes real-world experience from their job into the classroom and do a tremendous job,” he said in an August 8 school board meeting. “Our career switchers do such a good job of being relative for our students.”
Students in special education will experience the most adverse effects of the shortage. Special education teaching positions have been among the most difficult to fill in every school division.
“It’s a tough job, you know? There’s extra responsibilities whenever you’re working in special ed,” says Guempel. “Believe me, it takes extraordinary people to be special education teachers.”
And these students are the most vulnerable to severe negative outcomes when they do not receive the care they need in schools, according to Kelly. These students experience lower graduation rates, lower employment post-graduation, and more interactions with the law.
“You work much more closely with kids with disabilities, you’ve got a smaller class size,” he explains. “It’s more than just teaching content, it’s really trying to teach young people how to be successful in life, with life skills and other kinds of things. Oftentimes these are kids that come from homes that really struggle, that are really challenged.”
What can be done?
Though the outlook for this school year may seem bleak, Rudolph hopes students and parents won’t lose hope for the situation.
“I would encourage the general public and people who have children in school to not panic,” he says. “These problems can be fixed, and history shows us that sometimes things are up and sometimes things are down. Right now we’re in a down cycle, but it is very possible for your child to have a good school year. If your child wants to learn, they’ll still be able to learn.”
In the short term, school officials need support from parents and the public.
“It’s important that folks do realize that this is critical that we need help,” Guempel said in a school board meeting. “We need more bodies, we need more people. We do need more teachers, we do need more paras and we certainly need more subs if we’re going to provide the kind of education that we all want to provide. So if you know of anybody, please reach out to them. If you yourself want to be a sub, anybody in the public there, please, we could use your help in our buildings in order for us to do the very best job and the job that we all want to do for our children.”
School divisions can continue to increase teacher pay to become more competitive with those in Northern Virginia, and teacher support and mentorship programs can improve retention rates.
Looking farther ahead, Kelly believes there will need to be a cultural shift in how teachers are treated and compensated.
“We need to do everything that we can to try to elevate the teaching profession. We need people to understand the value of the work that teachers do and the value it brings to communities – we’ve lost a sense of that,” he says.
Additionally, Kelly points to “grow your own” programs as a means by which to strengthen the teacher pipeline for the future. These programs create a streamlined process through which high school students can become teachers by offering mentorship, dual enrollment classes, and sometimes financial aid.
“I see hope in [local divisions’] Teachers for Tomorrow programs as a grow-your-own program,” says Kelly. “Evidence suggests that teachers teach within a 20-mile radius of the high schools where they graduated. Teachers are rooted to place, so that’s pretty compelling evidence to my mind for having these grow-your-own programs, whether they’re growing them through apprenticeship or residency or paraprofessionals, or if you’re identifying young people in high school who want to be teachers.”
Kelly believes that reinvesting in colleges’ teacher preparation programs can also help boost recruitment into the profession. At UMW, College of Education faculty had the opportunity to renovate the old dining facility, Seacobeck Hall, into a state-of-the-art teacher preparation building. Investments like this make a big difference, Kelly says, because the infrastructure in Seacobeck is designed to prepare students for the modern classroom and all of the new pressures and expectations teachers face. “And we need it now more than ever,” he adds, “because when a student walks in here, it says, ‘Teaching matters.’”