Unemployment's low in Va., but so is teacher morale as many classes still need instructors

WAYNESBORO — Statewide, more teachers are leaving and fewer are entering the classroom according to a November report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the General Assembly.

In that report 94% of school divisions in Virginia surveyed said they are having more difficulty recruiting teaches now than in pre-pandemic days. Almost as many (90%) are having more difficulty retaining classroom teachers.

The number of teachers leaving the profession rose 12% in the 2021–22 school year compared to before the pandemic, according to the report. Meanwhile, in 2021-22 there was a 15% drop in newly licensed teacher from the pre-pandemic average.

Dr. Ryan Barber, Director of Student Services at Waynesboro Public Schools, in his office on September 12, 2018.
Dr. Ryan Barber, Director of Student Services at Waynesboro Public Schools, in his office on September 12, 2018.

In Waynesboro Public Schools, there are currently 5-1/2 positions open that Assistant Superintendent Ryan Barber said he's just had trouble filling this year. Those positions include world language teachers at both the middle and high school levels, a middle school math teacher, a high school special education teacher and an English language learner position at both the high school and elementary levels.

While actively searching for licensed teachers, Barber said Waynesboro is covering the classes with longterm subs. Like other school divisions in Virginia, Waynesboro isn't exempt from hiring struggles, but Barber said it's mostly in the math and science departments as well as foreign languages.

"It's definitely been more difficult," he said. "But isolated to very particular positions."

Jon Venn is the chief human resource officer for Staunton City Schools. He said there are two openings for Spanish teachers and he filled a special education position Tuesday morning. Otherwise, the school division is in pretty good shape as far as teacher vacancies.

"We have a couple of instructional assistants," he said, "but we're going to fill those. People come and go in those positions all the time."

Staunton High School
Staunton High School

That doesn't, however, mean there isn't still a problem.

The commission's report showed that two-thirds of teachers surveyed reported they are less satisfied with their jobs, with teachers citing low pay, lack of respect from parents and the public, and a more challenging student population that includes behavior issues as reasons for their lack of contentment.

Vacancies in a school can add to teacher stress. Forty percent of teachers also said a higher workload due to unfilled vacancies contributed to their unhappiness.

Venn estimated that a half dozen teachers are being asked to give up their planning period to fill in for classes that don't have a teacher that particular day in Staunton. That happens mostly at the high school level, he said. Those teachers do get extra pay, but they also go from teaching three blocks to four in a day and any class planning or grading that needs to be done has to wait until after school hours.

Staunton is also using five or six longterm substitutes, Venn estimated. While that sometimes has to do with an open position that can't be filled, Venn said more often than not it's simply because a teacher is out on maternity leave or with some kind of medical issue.

Stephanie Mason is one of those longterm subs. She was a full-time Spanish teacher in Staunton City Schools, teaching mornings at the middle school and afternoons at the high school, until last spring when burnout and a personal tragedy forced her to reevaluate her desire to continue in that position. She resigned, but she still loved education. Mason decided to launch a school board campaign, which she won in November.

With her previous position unfilled, Mason agreed to return as a substitute. That meant less money, but it also meant few hours, only having to teach morning at Shelburne Middle School. She will do that through December. Mason believes her position will be filled in second semester by a virtual teacher who won't be in Staunton but will teach via video in the classroom.

"And they're hiring somebody, like random to be in the classroom," she said. "They don't necessarily have to know Spanish, but they will be the ones to do seating charts, to collect papers to hand out papers to deal with behavior issues and stuff, but all the instruction will come from the teacher who's on basically Zoom."

Mason completely understands the survey results when it comes to student behavior, an issue she spoke about in her campaign as one that would continue to drive teachers from the classroom if it wasn't addressed. She said the teacher who filled her spot at the high school this fall quit just weeks into the semester.

"Kids were telling her that her class was boring and she didn't know how to teach and stuff," Mason said. "That's what my second blog currently is. They're very challenging. They say a lot of like racist stuff. They say a lot of racy stuff. They say a lot of like inappropriate things.They do inappropriate things. And a lot of teachers don't want to come into an environment doing that."

Parents, on the other hand, have been supportive, according to Mason.

"They're either supportive or they're exasperated," she said. "They don't know what to do either. A lot of times when I go to them because their child's being disrespectful or they said something mean, the parents themselves are very nice about it and they're very apologetic, or they're very willing to work with me."

Going forward, Mason believes one way to attract more teachers is to change the narrative. She said it's only a small percentage of students who are causing problems, but if you were to look at Facebook comments by parents or listen to students you'd think it was many more. That has contributed, in Mason's opinion, to a bad reputation for the school division.

"So changing the narrative to really highlight the positive but also address the negative and say, 'We see this as happening by one kid. This is not who we are,'" Mason said. "Words are pretty powerful to change the narrative and get more positive behavior."

— Patrick Hite is The News Leader's education reporter. Story ideas and tips always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at phite@newsleader.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to us at newsleader.com.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Unemployment in Va. may be down, but teacher anxiety goes up amid continuing shortage