COVID caused a national teacher shortage. Fort Worth schools are feeling the pinch

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The Fort Worth school district started the school year with more than four times as many vacant teacher positions as it had at the beginning of last year, according to district figures.

The district had 314 vacant teacher jobs at the beginning of the year, compared with just 71 at the start of the 2019-20 school year. Those vacant jobs are a part of a broader shortage of educators that’s forced school administrators both in Fort Worth and nationwide to find stopgap solutions as they scramble to hire more certified teachers.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to teacher workforce issues both in Fort Worth and nationwide, a researcher with an education policy nonprofit said the shortage affecting districts this year is years in the making.

Fort Worth schools use substitutes to fill vacancies

During the 2020-21 school year, 906 teachers resigned from the district, according to figures provided by the district. Although that total represents a 15.6% uptick in resignations over the previous year, it isn’t out of line with what the district has seen over the past few years. More than 900 of the district’s teachers resigned in the 2017-18 school year, and again in the 2018-19 school year, according to district figures.

But teachers in Fort Worth say their campuses started the year short-staffed, at least in part because the district has struggled to hire new teachers to replace those who left the district over the summer.

Sarah Russell, the P.E. teacher at West Handley Elementary School, said her school started the year without an art teacher or a dual language pre-K teacher. The school also needs second- and fourth-grade dual language teachers, she said.

Two long-term substitute teachers are covering classes until the district can hire permanent teachers for those classes, she said. Those long-term substitutes are a big help, she said, and she’s grateful to them for stepping in to fill vacancies. But they aren’t certified teachers, which Russell said creates concerns about the quality of education those students are receiving.

Russell said she thinks more teachers would have left the district over the summer if they were in a financial position to do so. Morale among teachers isn’t good, she said, and if they don’t get more support soon, she expects more teachers will continue to leave.

At the same time, the students show obvious signs of the effects of the pandemic, Russell said. Many have lived through trauma in some way or another during the pandemic, she said. Some lost parents or grandparents. Others are in families where a parent lost a job. The students struggle to self-regulate and resolve conflicts among themselves, she said, and their social and emotional needs are so great that it’s hard for teachers to get to the curriculum.

“They’re drowning, and we’re drowning with them,” Russell said.

Teacher shortage is a nationwide problem

Nationally, the teacher shortage is a problem both of recruiting and retention, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, an education policy think tank. Although COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, the shortage of teachers can be traced back more than a decade, she said.

During the Great Recession, school districts responded to state budget cuts by laying off a slew of teachers and school support staff, Carver-Thomas said. Then, as their budgets rebounded, districts began trying to hire teachers to replace the ones they’d laid off, restore classes and programs they’d cut and reduce their student-teacher ratios to pre-recession levels, she said.

That meant demand for teachers increased nationwide, Carver-Thomas said. But the supply of teachers didn’t increase along with it. In fact, there’s been a decline in the number of students enrolling in teacher preparatory programs at colleges and universities nationwide over the past decade, she said. Meanwhile, teachers continue to leave the profession each year, she said. Nationwide, the attrition rate for teachers is about 8%, she said, but it varies drastically from one state to the next and among districts within a single state. Some districts lose as much as 20% of their teacher workforce each year, she said.

In early March, Carver-Thomas and other researchers at the institute released a study warning that the pandemic could worsen an existing shortage of teachers. But Carver-Thomas said the institute conducted surveys for that study at a time when school leaders expected steep budget cuts due to the pandemic-driven recession. In many states, those cuts didn’t materialize. But districts are now using federal relief money to add new teacher positions, creating even more vacancies than there would be otherwise, she said.

In a geographic region like the Dallas-Fort Worth area, all school districts recruit from the same pool of candidates to fill vacancies. Districts can try strategies like offering better pay or better working conditions to make themselves more attractive to potential hires, she said. But the districts who do the best job of recruiting new teachers do so at the expense of every other district in their area, she said. Often, districts that serve more students from low-income families and students of color are the ones who don’t have the resources to compete, she said.

Retired Fort Worth teachers return to work

Kathryn Krodell, a social studies teacher at Paschal High School, said her school’s math and science departments began the year short-staffed. The district begins each year with some number of vacant teacher positions, but Krodell said the problem seems worse this year.

A group of retired teachers from Paschal stepped in to cover those classes as long-term substitutes until the district can find teachers to fill those roles permanently, she said. Those teachers spent years teaching those classes as full-time teachers, she said, so they’ve been able to step back into the classroom and cover those classes without missing a beat.

Crystal Mercer, an intervention specialist at Trimble Tech High School, said the teacher shortage has been a source of stress for many of the teachers at her school. Many teachers left the district at the end of last year, she said. Those who did come back found themselves with larger class sizes at a time when public health guidance advises them to space students out as much as possible. As the school year progresses, she continues to see more signs of pandemic-related trauma and professional burnout among teachers, she said.

The stress of being in school during the pandemic hasn’t been limited to teachers. Rachel Blackmon, a former librarian at Riverside Middle School, left the district at the end of the last school year. When schools shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, she began to look for other opportunities. She began pursuing a real estate license and certification to teach yoga.

Blackmon’s job only got more frustrating after students returned to school in person last year, she said. Because so many teachers were out sick or on quarantine, Blackmon was drafted to cover classes for absent teachers nearly every day. Students would come into the library, she’d space them out as much as she could manage and they’d work on their laptops, she said. As more and more students came back in person, it became harder for her and teachers at Riverside to find enough room to keep them properly spaced out, she said.

Blackmon said she never expected to stay with the district until she retired. But she’d planned to be there for a few more years, at least until her son graduated from high school. But the pandemic moved those plans up, she said.

Public perception of teaching needs to change, UEA director says

Steven Poole, executive director of United Educators Association, said the problem isn’t unique to Fort Worth. He noted that the Houston school district, the largest district in the state, started its school year with more than 300 vacant teacher positions.

“It’s the same problem everywhere,” Poole said.

At many schools in the district, long-term substitute teachers fill vacant teacher positions temporarily. That situation isn’t ideal, Poole said. Students need consistency, he said, and they need teachers who have the skills necessary to get them where they need to be academically. When students start the school year with a long-term substitute and switch to a certified teacher midway through, it disrupts their school year, he said.

In the long term, school districts need to work to change the public perception of the teaching profession, Poole said. Schools need more people graduating from college with dreams of becoming teachers, he said. Districts need to offer better pay and more support, not only to attract those recent graduates, but also to keep the teachers they already have from leaving the profession, he said.

In the short term, there are steps the district could take to support teachers and fill some of the gaps left by the teacher shortage, he said. The district’s central office has administrators who are certified to teach, he said. The district could temporarily reassign those administrators to cover classes until the district can hire permanent teachers, he said.

School districts also need to show more respect for teachers’ time, Poole said. Teachers have many responsibilities that don’t relate directly to teaching. He’d like to see districts remove those responsibilities so teachers can focus their efforts on their students.

Teachers need support, professional autonomy

Ale Checka, an English teacher at Applied Learning Academy, said the middle school started the year shorthanded. The school moved to a new location over the summer, and district officials planned to expand the school during that move. The school has the same number of teachers as last year, Checka said, but it started the year with more students and a few vacant teacher positions.

Checka said the teacher shortage is a problem of teacher recruitment as well as teacher retention. Those were issues in education before the pandemic, she said, but COVID-19 exacerbated them and made them more obvious problems.

“There’s nothing in education, really, that COVID created,” she said.

If the district wants to retain more of the teachers it already has, it needs to offer more support and more professional autonomy, she said. Experienced teachers know what works well for their classes, she said, and they understand that a teaching method that works well for one class might fall flat for another. But many times, teachers are given professional guidelines that are so rigid they can’t tailor their teaching to their students’ needs, she said.

Those rigid guidelines are frustrating for teachers and, ultimately, bad for students, Checka said. Teachers are drawn to the profession because they value human connection and they love the subject areas they teach, she said. But when schools try to standardize instruction across every classroom, they stifle those human connections and make it harder for teachers to do their jobs effectively, she said. That means students don’t get the quality of instruction they would if teachers were given a freer hand to do their jobs, she said.

Teachers — even those with many years of experience — also need support, Checka said. Most professional development is targeted at early-career teachers, she said. She thinks districts also need professional development that’s geared toward helping longer-tenured teachers continue to grow and develop after years or decades in the classroom. Districts also need to create more opportunities for teachers to share knowledge and ideas among themselves, she said. Teachers love explaining and sharing, she said. When older teachers share wisdom they’ve gained over the years with their younger colleagues and get new ideas and techniques from them in return, everyone benefits, she said.

Fort Worth schools look to fill vacancies

Barbara Griffith, a spokeswoman for the district, said district officials are working to address the shortage of teachers.

The district has a plan to bring in staff members from other schools and the district’s central office to fill vacancies at severely understaffed schools temporarily until the district can hire permanent teachers to fill those positions, she said. The district is also hosting a virtual career fair to recruit new teachers and teaching assistants Tuesday afternoon.

But Russell, the West Handley P.E. teacher, said she expects the teacher shortage will get worse before it gets better. Teachers need more support, she said. Another teacher in her building has enough students in her class that, according to school guidelines, she should have a teaching assistant. But the district hasn’t hired one, so the teacher is left to handle the class on her own, Russell said. She thinks situations like that drive teachers to consider other careers outside the classroom.

The workload, the emotional toll of teaching during the pandemic, compassion fatigue and trauma are all wearing teachers down, she said. She hopes to see the district reallocate more resources toward supporting teachers. Until that happens, she expects more good teachers will continue to leave the classroom.

Career fair details

The Fort Worth school district will host a virtual career fair to recruit teachers and teacher assistants at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. For details, go to the Frontline Recruitment page of FWISD or check the district’s Facebook page.

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