Recruitment & Retention

Districts Turn to Emergency Measures for Hard-to-Staff Teaching Posts

Some use emergency measures to fill spots
By Madeline Will — August 22, 2017 5 min read
Karen Rogers goes over a concept in her freshman English class at Cienega High School in Vail, Ariz. Rogers, in her first full year as a teacher, previously served 20 years as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
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Across the country, school districts are trying new tactics to avoid starting this school year with an empty teacher’s desk, with some going so far as to hire parents to staff empty classrooms.

Many districts have reported trouble filling certain positions, particularly in traditional shortage areas like special education, math, science, and foreign-language instruction. That is, of course, a perennial issue: Most states have reported shortage areas for years, if not decades.

For the 2017-18 school year, every state reported geographic and/or subject-area shortage areas to the U.S. Department of Education.

While that doesn’t necessarily indicate a national teacher shortfall, the shortages remain intense in certain places. In Oklahoma, for example, the state—which has the lowest average teacher pay in the country—issued a record-setting 1,160 emergency certifications in 2016-17 and 855 by the beginning of August for this academic year. These certifications allow people without a teaching certificate to teach for one year, or allow a certified teacher to teach a new subject before getting recertified.

And in Nevada, the fast-growing Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas and is the fifth-largest in the country, is starting its school year with almost 400 teaching vacancies—significant, though a far cry from the more than 900 openings the district had at the start of 2015-16.

Parents Fill In

Near Tucson, Ariz., the Vail school system has struggled with hiring enough qualified teachers for the past several years. Previously, the district started the year with substitute teachers filling the gaps. That lack of consistency wasn’t ideal for parents, students, and the instructional team, Superintendent Calvin Baker said.

In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a law that allows districts to hire people without formal teacher training—similar to recent changes in Oklahoma and Utah. Prospective teachers just need five years of experience working in a field relevant to the subject area they will teach or a bachelor’s degree (or both).

So this year, the 13,500-student Vail district hired noncertified teachers instead of licensed substitutes to fill its classrooms. But many of those noncertified teachers weren’t strangers to the district: Parents make up 17 of the 24 noncertified teachers in the K-8 grades. There are also 14 parents teaching high school courses.

“I think that a number of them were motivated by the need to stand in the gap, so to speak,” Baker said.

Karen Rogers, the mother of three district students, recently retired from the military, where she taught aircrew members survival, evasion, resistance, and escape skills. When she was considering her next career step, she heard that the district was struggling to find teachers.

“As a parent, I prefer to have people who are going to be there long term,” she said. “I wanted to see good teachers come in, and I knew I could adjust what I learned in the Air Force to the classroom.”

She’s now teaching 9th grade English and Advanced Placement Psychology, with early and ongoing support from coaches and mentors. The hardest part of her first year so far has been balancing her personal time with the demands of teaching. But getting a grasp on the material and pedagogy hasn’t been too much of a challenge, she said: “If you have any questions, there’s always someone to ask.”

Not A ‘Perfect Solution’

Providing increased coaching support—at least twice a month—to noncertified teachers has been a strategic effort for the district, Baker said.

Rogers said she has at least one advantage over nonparents: She knew the district’s terminology and policies right off the bat. “I already knew a lot of the [school’s] inner workings because I was a parent first,” she said.

And she’s working to get her certification so she can stay a teacher long term—which is exactly what Baker wants.

Still, he said, ideally teachers would be paid enough so that recruitment of traditionally trained teachers wouldn’t be so much of a challenge.

“We’re not suggesting this is the perfect solution, but this is the way that we are solving the problem, because we don’t have the power to fix the problem,” Baker said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Elsewhere, districts have found other nontraditional solutions to the shortages—anywhere from calling retired teachers back to the clasroom to using technology in place of a live teacher.

The Franklin County, Fla., district, which is on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, hired its last math teacher the Friday evening before school started the following Monday.

“We were desperate,” said Sue Summers, the director of curriculum and instruction for the district, pointing to mathematics as the most difficult subject to staff.

While the district ultimately found enough math teachers, the contingency plan was to provide students access to math courses in the Florida Virtual School, with a facilitator managing the classroom. “We wanted to be sure they had solid instruction,” Summers said.

Although other districts have relied on software and virtual schools to fill personnel gaps, it’s not ideal, educators say. Parents in Franklin County pushed back, Summers said, and educators worried about the middle school transition being even more difficult without students having an actual teacher.

Another solution that has caused some concern among educators: relying on student-teachers.

Gregg Garn, the dean of the University of Oklahoma’s college of education, said districts historically view student-teaching as long-term job interviews. But now, districts are extending job offers much more quickly, he said—sometimes even before the prospective teacher has completed his or her degree.

“You can see the pressure to pull that person out of student-teaching and put them right in the classroom, but we try to resist [that],” he said.

Otherwise, an ill-prepared teacher may not stay in the classroom for long, said Kenna Colley, the dean of the Radford University college of education and human development in Virginia. “To retain teachers in the field, you want to make sure they’re ready,” she said. “And sling-shotting them [to the classroom] before they’re done with student-teaching is not the best idea.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as Districts Hard-Pressed To Staff Teaching Posts

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