Recruitment & Retention

Schools Are Still Understaffed. Here’s How Hard-Pressed Principals Are Responding

By Denisa R. Superville — October 13, 2022 9 min read
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At Johnsburg Elementary School in Johnsburg, Ill., about 60 miles north of Chicago, principal Bridget Belcastro had to move an academic support staff member into a special education position because she couldn’t find a replacement after the last-minute vacancy popped up during the summer.

In Inman, S.C., Andrew McMillan got no takers for a special education opening last year at Chapman High School, where McMillan is the principal, leaving him to rely on regular education teachers to fill the gap and teach extra periods during the school day. Another staff member ensures that students get the special services specified in their individualized education programs, or IEPs.

The lack of applicants was “just shocking,” said McMillan, whose district, Spartanburg County School District 1, is among the seven in the county jockeying for a small pool of candidates. “There’s a ton of those jobs posted.”

Belcastro’s and McMillan’s experiences may sound familiar to many of their colleagues, who, even before the pandemic, had trouble filling vacancies in special education and the sciences. Now, their reliable pool of substitute teachers and paraprofessionals is running low. And districts themselves are struggling to find enough bus drivers and custodians, who often can earn more money in the private sector.

Principals are relying on a hodgepodge of ideas to plug staffing holes, often taking them away from some of their main duties. The inconsistencies in approach also could be major hurdles as schools seek to address learning loss, mental health concerns, and other challenges that have emerged from the pandemic.

Nearly half of principals in a federal survey this summer said they’d found it “very difficult” to fill special education vacancies. Foreign languages and computer science also were particularly hard to staff in June. The big reasons? Not enough candidates and a dearth of qualified applicants.

Trying to find the key to plugging staffing gaps

But there’s also “ghosting,” when candidates just never show up for interviews, Belcastro said.

That’s how Belcastro almost started the school year without a special education teacher. She was already at a disadvantage when she entered the search at the last minute, but she was still surprised that only five people applied. The candidate who was originally offered the position turned it down. The next person on the list did not have the right experience and certification, she said.

“We also had several people who were either no shows or did not respond,” Belcastro said. “They just didn’t come to the interviews and didn’t tell us why.”

In the end, Belcastro offered the job to an interventionist providing small-group instruction in reading and math who was already working in the school and had a special education certification. She then hired an interventionist—a much easier process.

While stories of principals subbing for classroom teachers, filling in for custodians, and taking their turns behind the school bus wheels are no longer regularly making front-page news, shortages continue to deflect principals from their primary tasks, said Jason Leahy, the executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

“Maybe it’s become more routine, maybe it’s not at the forefront of our minds,” Leahy said, adding that it’s also perhaps that, “we are grateful that we are getting back to normal.”

But even just one missing person can interrupt the normal flow of school, he said.

Leahy’s wife works as a school nurse, and a student recently visited her office for assistance after an accident that was not considered serious.

But his wife still needed an administrator, and she radioed the principal and the school’s assistant principals.

“She wasn’t able to get any of them to her office immediately because they were all subbing,” Leahy said. Imagine, he said, if it were an emergency and the administrators weren’t available.

“We have things that we expect and need from our school leaders, in terms of what they need to do in order to lead their schools effectively,” he said. “That takes time and energy, and if people are subbing in classrooms, it isn’t going be a great use of their time and it’s not productive for the school in the long term.”

The staffing challenges—a reliance on substitute teachers to fill in for regular teachers who are sick, on principals to step in when subs are unavailable, and on new teachers without full teaching credentials—could jeopardize the much-needed focus on combating COVID-related learning loss, he said.

“It’s only going to happen when we have outstanding people in those positions over a long period of time,” he said. “The research has been pretty clear: For us to be doing our best for our students, we need teachers who are well-qualified, who are there over long periods of time.”

‘Not a desirable situation’

Aaron Hill has only one open position at the 382-student Du Quoin Middle School, in Du Quoin, in southern Illinois, but that vacancy is forcing him to make a decision he’d rather not make.

Short a special education teacher, Hill got a state waiver to combine two special education classes. He added an aide to assist the teacher in the new class, which now has 14 students.

Hill would have preferred two classes with half as many students in each, with a specially trained teacher at the helm of both.

“It’s not a desirable situation, because those students need a lot more one-on-one help,” he said. “That teacher can’t provide the one-one-one support that she normally would. ... We’d rather have a fully staffed classroom and have smaller class sizes.”

Staffing challenges were mounting long before the pandemic hit, Hill said. Changes to Illinois’ retirement benefits, which resulted in reduced benefits for newer teachers, have made more people think twice about going into the profession. Add to that, local college students can move to neighboring states after graduation and still maintain close, strong ties with their families and communities. That leaves districts fighting over those who stay behind, Hill said.

As for the open position, Hill is looking to find a qualified special education teacher before the new school year starts.

“We are just very hopeful that we can find somebody that is going to graduate in December, that we can convince to come work for us compared to another district,” he said. “It’s a competition to lure that person … It’s very, very competitive right now.”

Belcastro, Hill’s colleague in the northern part of the state, doesn’t normally have trouble finding candidates, in part because her district’s proximity to Chicago makes it an attractive option for job-seekers.

But the last-minute vacancies this year—in addition to the special education spot, one opened up for a 5th grade teacher who was moving—has Belcastro thinking not just about her situation but that of her colleagues across the country.

In her first year as principal, nearly 16 years ago, more than 400 candidates applied for four open positions. The dwindling number of candidates for every opening is forcing school leaders to hire people they may have passed on before, she said.

“When you have fewer bodies applying for positions, you may not get the person that’s right for your building,” Belcastro said.

She thinks she’s made good choices.

“I don’t believe that among my current staff there’s anyone that’s a placeholder,” she said. “I think I have qualified staff. It’s those subs—that’s the hardest part. So making sure that we have qualified subs and enough subs is important.”

Moving the interventionist into the special education position may have saved the day this year, but that teacher wants to return to her passion. Belcastro still has to fill the position next year. “She’s great about being an interventionist, and I want to do what I can to get her back into that position,” Belcastro said.

Belcastro doesn’t generally have openings at the school, for which she credits a positive school culture, a high level of trust, and a collaborative spirit.

Worries about future hiring

Even with a positive school culture, those reaching retirement age have to be replaced.

That’s a worry for Alan Stanfield, an assistant principal at Glacier High School in Kalispell, Mont., whose staff includes a number of people who are nearing retirement.

Pandemic relocations to Montana have increased class sizes and driven up housing prices in the area, he said, making it harder to attract candidates. In some cases, when school leaders finally land employees, the cost of housing scares them off, Stanfield said.

The biggest staffing challenge in his area is finding enough people to fill custodian and support staff positions. The district also has vacancies for substitute bus drivers and paraprofessionals.

“We have been fortunate at the high schools, but some of the elementary school principals have been doing custodial work; teachers are doing clean up duties,” he said.

In cases when a substitute teacher is unavailable, teachers fill in the gap during their prep periods, Stanfield said. The district and teachers’ union have agreed to pay teachers for giving up their planning periods, he said.

“That’s not a sustainable model over time,” Stanfield said. “They elect to do that; now they’ve lost time.”

From leading a school to being an “HR” representative

McMillan, the South Carolina principal, now has a teaching assistant and a custodian position open, along with the unfilled special education position from last year.

McMillan, whose school has 1,050 students, has tried recruiting fairs, social media posts, and worked with colleagues and local universities.

“We’ve extended our footprint into other counties and other parts of the state, which we never had to do before,” McMillan said. “There is just no one going into our field in that area that’s not under contract.”

There’s a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among principals to send along prospective full-time candidates, people already vetted as long-term subs, recent retirees, or other qualified applicants to their colleagues who are in the market, McMillan said.

“We do talk as principals—just trying to share resources and trying to share staff to ensure that kids have a quality teacher in the classroom,” McMillan said.

But all of the efforts to fill positions can eat up a principal’s time, he said.

“You’re trying to work the phones and find the next person; sometimes, it takes time away from your job,” McMillan said. “When you have a lack of applicants, you have to be off campus more to [attend] recruiting fairs. You have to dive into your system of networks and colleagues to call upon. It turns into an HR responsibility to find people.”

Belcastro, in Illinois, worries that some of the proposals in other states to ease teacher shortages by loosening certification requirements could hurt the profession.

She is concerned that some changes to address the emergency could further devalue the profession and send the message to those already teaching that the effort they put into obtaining their certifications was pointless.

“I think that it breeds this spiral, ‘We have to do this as a Band-Aid for this immediate problem,’” she said. “Are those states saying that at some point you go back to certification? Well what about the people who are doing it without certification?”

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Still Understaffed. Here’s How Hard-Pressed Principals Are Responding

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