North country administrators, educators talk national teacher shortage, COVID and upcoming school year

·13 min read

Sep. 3—WATERTOWN — With COVID-19 related restrictions and regulations having been further relaxed for the start of the 2022-23 school year next week, there is much hope for finding a "new normal." But a shortage of teachers and other staff necessary for school districts to operate properly has been affecting schools across the nation.

The north country has not been immune to the shortage, as many districts are dealing with increasingly smaller pools of applicants and often competing with one another for recruits, and there are still dozens of positions open across the region — from superintendents and principals to bus drivers and substitute teachers. The first day of school for most districts is Tuesday.

Districts in the north country have gotten creative with their responses to the shortages and have remained committed to providing their students with the many classes and programs they offer.

According to Jefferson-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent Stephen J. Todd, he and his colleagues have been talking for the last several years about how they've seen a small pool of available teachers and educators coming out of teacher prep programs.

"It's not really pandemic related and what we're seeing this year is not dramatically different from what we saw last year, the year before or the year before that, even though the overall hiring market nationwide is even tighter," Mr. Todd said. "I hear this from my colleagues outside of education as well, what my industry friends are saying mirrors what we're seeing that the workforce is, as we know it, just much smaller than the demand for employees right now in every field."

He noted that it is hard to find teachers of all kinds, but especially those in specialized areas like particular sciences or foreign languages. The market is also tighter for teaching assistants, aides and substitute teachers, as well as bus drivers. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services hires teachers of particular trades and Mr. Todd said he was happy to report that they have had good success this year filling some hard-to-fill teaching positions for electrical wiring and heavy equipment classes.

He also helps out when districts need help finding high-level administrators like superintendents, and is currently assisting with searches for superintendents for the Watertown City School District and General Brown Central School District. He noted that superintendent searches used to bring in around 25 to 30 applicants, and this was true statewide. Then it became 15, then 10. And then it became single digits.

"That's true, I think, across the labor market, but there are still good people out there, we're still hiring excellent people," Mr. Todd said.

COVID-19 led teachers to modify their approaches to teaching, become adept at virtual learning and collaboration, use new technology, narrow curricula to the essentials, and assess students in different ways in order to continue to offer students meaningful learning experiences. They overcame this unprecedented time by doing what they do best: supporting, encouraging and educating.

Even before the pandemic, teachers were leaving their positions or the profession entirely for various reasons, including low pay and a lack of societal support.

"When we first shut down, people really realized how much teachers do and were thankful, but that was very short lived," said Nadine C. Britton, living environment teacher at Sackets Harbor Central School. "I think that the general public has a difficult time understanding what a teacher's day really looks like and without that vision, our job is thought to be extremely easy. I think that due to all of that, the lack of support that teachers feel is why we have a shortage right now."

Mrs. Britton, who is now in her 23rd year of teaching and second with the district, noted that it needs to be understood that teachers are educated people with advanced degrees who have families and bills, and that a living wage and general support are the only way the teaching profession will become marketable again.

Fellow Sackets Harbor educator Leanne K. Montrois, who is in her 14th year of teaching, feels fortunate that she was able to return to her alma mater to teach, but agrees that while people become teachers because they love what they do and love helping kids, bonding with them and making sure that they have a wonderful experience, it can be disheartening when teachers are villainized along with education systems in general.

"We do what we can, and I just wish society as a whole could see what teachers do and appreciate the time, effort and sacrifices that teachers make to give their kids the best education," she said.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education surveyed its members in both fall 2020 and fall 2021, and found that in both years, about 20% of institutions reported a decline in new undergraduate enrollment of 11% or more. That mirrors an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment. Even before the pandemic, surveys showed that concerns about pay and working conditions were among the factors deterring prospective college students from going into teaching, which in turn has contributed to schools competing for shrinking pools of teachers.

Public school teachers, as state employees, are on a strict salary system with steps. Generally, the longer you're a teacher, the more money you make, but with the shortage, districts are becoming more competitive with the starting salaries they offer. It often is still not enough.

One of three kindergarten teachers at Indian River Central School District's Theresa Primary School, Jessica L. Taylor is in her 15th year of teaching and her fourth year at Indian River.

"Pay is not the No. 1 reason why you're a teacher, but we are also in a time where it's difficult — everything has gone up," she said. "People have families and teachers still need to take care of their own families and take care of themselves."

According to the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary for 2020-21 was $41,770, an increase of 1.4% over 2019-20, but when adjusted for inflation, represents a 4% decrease from 2019-20, undoing the gains made over the previous two years. According to Salary.com, the average entry level teacher salary in New York was $44,775 as of the end of August, but the range typically falls between $37,397 and $54,592. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on location and many other factors including education, certifications, additional skills and the number of years spent in the profession.

For the Sackets Harbor Central School District, a starting teacher with a master's degree for the 2022-23 school year would be $52,670, and the more education they have, the more credit hours, the more money they would make, according to Superintendent Jennifer L. Gaffney-Goodnough.

"I believe that we need to make sure that our schools are funded in such a way to ensure that teachers and other staff are well paid commensurate with the private sector," she said. "We are always looking to ensure that we are remaining competitive from a salary standpoint. We're a small school district though, so small school districts sometimes just don't have the same resources as some of our larger school counterparts."

Mrs. Gaffney said it is imperative that the government at the federal and state levels come up with some targeted action plans to address the teacher shortage.

"Public schools are the backbone of our democracy, which means we have to work well in order for our society to function at its best," she said. "And if we are not able to provide that well rounded, comprehensive education that our communities expect and deserve, then I fear for the future."

The district is in good shape to begin this next school year, though it is still lacking a bus driver as one will be retiring in the fall, but is willing to be a long-term substitute for Sackets until the district is able to find a replacement. Mrs. Gaffney shared that the district has also struggled to get some long-term substitutes to cover leaves, but ultimately was able to figure it out and those positions have since been filled thanks to some other retirees returning to help out.

There is also a vacancy for the school principal position and applications are due Sept. 9. The district will then go through the interview and stakeholder involvement processes through the rest of the month with a goal of making a selection at some point in October. In the meantime, Barry Davis, who just retired from Lyme Central School District, will be stepping in as interim principal until a replacement can be secured.

Another district benefitting from retirees willing to help out as needed is Potsdam Central. Superintendent Joann Chambers said the district has been successful in filling most of its vacancies to date, though it had a few resignations occur later in the summer and is currently advertising for a high school English teacher and a high school social studies teacher. Potsdam has also just started advertising for a custodial worker/bus driver and will soon be advertising for an elementary principal, Mrs. Chambers said.

"We are very fortunate that a few of our retired teachers have agreed to come back to work for us while we fill the vacancies at the high school," she said. Filling bus driver positions has been particularly challenging, so this summer we provided paid training for any employee interested in getting their (commercial driver's license). We had one teacher and one recently retired teacher take us up on this. Those individuals may help us out with some of the extra driving such as trips to athletic contests."

Mrs. Chambers said the state Education Department recognizes that schools are struggling to find certified teachers to fill vacancies and has already made some changes that should help, including the requirement for candidates to pass a costly exam, and making it easier for teachers who were certified in other states to obtain New York certification. Like most states, New York requires that all state teachers hold a bachelor's degree, complete a New York teacher certification program and pass the required content examinations. Upon meeting the requirements for certification, an applicant may be issued an initial certificate, which is valid for five years. Teachers must earn a master's degree within five years of initial certification and accumulate three full years of classroom teaching experience and one year of mentored teaching to qualify for a professional certificate.

Mrs. Chambers noted that there have also been helpful changes in certification for special education, literacy and science teacher certification and she is also pleased to see that New York now allows part-time students to be eligible for TAP, or Tuition Assistance Program, which will be helpful for many students, including paraprofessionals who wish to continue with schooling in order to receive teacher certification. The New York State United Teachers, NYSUT, is also encouraging current high school students to consider a career in education, she said.

"In order to encourage recent graduates to go into this exacting yet rewarding profession, our society needs to foster a positive narrative and instill the truth that teaching is not only an honorable profession, but a privilege," said Lowville Academy English teacher Rebecca Hyde. "Most importantly, we need the leaders of our state and federal government to recognize the incalculable value of public education and provide both the funding and support necessary to ensure our students' and teachers' well-being and success."

Rebecca Dunckel-King, superintendent for Lowville Academy and Central School, said there were approximately 15 positions that needed to be filled for this upcoming year, noting that the most difficult positions to fill were in the foreign language and science areas as the candidate pool for these positions is small.

"At LACS, we created a recruitment video to share in our advertisements. We also have attended many more job fairs than we have in the past," Mrs. Dunckel-King said. "We have been proactive with the positions we knew we had to fill. It becomes a little more challenging when you have an unexpected opening, but we have managed very well by casting a larger net and reaching out beyond our region."

Another north country district in pretty good shape moving into the next year is Indian River. According to Superintendent Troy W. Decker, there were two or three instructional positions and five or six support wise that needed filling. There are applicants for the positions and all that is left is to get through the process of getting them in the door, approved and ready to start the school year, Mr. Decker said.

"I think an important aspect is what we're experiencing now is something that we kind of as an industry have to be mindful about going forward and how we continue to recruit and retain solid staff," he said. "We've got to be very thoughtful and intentional with our practices to recruit and retain staff and that includes not only starting salaries, but a lot of people are looking not just at salary, but also working conditions."

He noted that to fill needed positions, Indian River posts to various job sites, works with colleges sometimes for hard-to-fill areas so that it can target students who just finished student teaching, works with the Fort Drum placement office and The Workplace in Watertown to bring in applicants.

"We also continue to look down the road big picture in terms of what our job outlook may look like in the future, so we are working to make sure our current students are aware that education is a very viable field with a tremendous opportunity and flexibility," he said. "We work with our colleges regionally and beyond to foster programs that allow for student visitations and shadow time and certainly support student teaching in lots of ways, and oftentimes, we find those are some of our best recruiting tools."

As substitutes are often hard to come by, Mrs. Taylor said she would highly recommend that the people who want to be in the teaching field start off as substitutes as it gets their foot in the door and is a great opportunity for them to start their careers while also helping the districts around the north country.

Despite lingering challenges from COVID and beyond in terms of small applicant pools, social-emotional well-being and gaps in learning, administrators and teachers are looking forward to the upcoming school year and being able to welcome students back without masking or distancing requirements that have loomed over districts in recent times.

"I'm incredibly optimistic about what this year will bring, we're getting back to the business of teaching and learning again, and I'm really excited about that," Mrs. Gaffney said. "Just getting back to a more normal feel is certainly welcomed."