There was a time when a job as an English teacher at Madison Elementary School attracted 30 to 40 applicants.
These days, said Michael Whaland, the school is lucky to have six.
Whaland, the superintendent of SAU 13, which includes Freedom, Madison and Tamworth, knows the numbers well. Two weeks after the start of classes, his district is missing two teachers, four paraprofessionals and a principal in his three schools.
For Whaland, the situation has personal resonance; he wrote his doctoral thesis on the difficulties of retaining teachers in rural schools. But COVID-19 has exacerbated these difficulties.
“In my last district, we had positions open year round and they weren’t filled,” said Whaland, who took on the role of SAU 13 superintendent in July. “So I think this is one of those situations where you have to hope for the best but expect the worst.”
It is an almost universal story. New Hampshire schools returned to in-person learning this month, but many are understaffed. The pressures of a general sluggish hiring trend combined with school environments that have become the focal point of political and epidemiological debates in recent months have led to a shortage of candidate teachers.
“If it’s not every school board or every school district, it’s definitely statewide,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.
In fact, it is a national problem. According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association this year, 80% of the organization said they have seen more educators retire or quit their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Thirty-seven percent of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave earlier than expected – an increase from 28% in May 2020.
Public schools and private schools have filled job search websites, with many supportive job postings, from babysitting work to paraprofessionals. Often, schools have half a dozen openings in a day.
Educators say this has been a particularly trying year.
“You have a lot of teachers who are totally exhausted,” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire, a state union. “And there have been more retirements than we expected. ”
But the challenges are also structural. In an environment where every employer competes for workers, school districts are sometimes at a disadvantage, Whaland said. Staff salaries can be stuck in hard-fought collective agreements, and administrations cannot always be as flexible as other employers when it comes to incentivizing staff to stay.
“It is difficult for districts to be as nimble as what is happening in the private sector,” he said.
This means that some of the support staff are leaving for other districts, which might pay a little more per hour. Or they can go into other industries entirely.
And with the state seeing a return to high daily COVID-19 loads, safety is another factor.
“Maybe the people who were paraprofessionals just don’t feel comfortable going back into the building for some reason,” Christina said. “They are worried about the exposure. Maybe they have some underlying health issues. I think it played a role.
Among teachers, the exodus was mainly caused by two groups, Whaland said. On one side of the spectrum are long-time teachers who have opted for retirement over distance learning. On the other side, there are the brand new teachers for whom the pandemic has been a wake-up call to some of the challenges of the job, which can also take student masters away from the profession.
“It’s a mix between not necessarily having people in the pipeline and having an aging veterans body that may not be replaced quickly,” Whaland said. “We are losing a lot of institutional knowledge in our educational settings.
As older and younger teachers leave, those in the middle of that age and spectrum of experiences – “the core group” – are largely hanging on, Whaland said.
But for all educators, burnout is a constant threat. With district-by-district decisions on when and how to return students to class in 2020 and 2021, teachers have been forced to adapt to ever-changing teaching environments with growing lists of digital tools.
“I think people are really trying to do more with less,” Whaland said. “I think there were a lot of people who had to change their pedagogy. I think there are a lot of people who have had to try new things, take risks, and it’s been hard.
Another dynamic has emerged over the past year: the rise of intensive parent-teacher and student-teacher interactions, all hours of the day and night. With many people online and at home for extended periods of time, traditional boundaries have all but disappeared.
“It was a lot worse with high school and middle school teachers, as students would get up later and later, and they would do homework and be on online platforms and seek feedback from teachers and send instant messages via online platforms, ”Howes says.
Distance learning posed challenges that were impossible for everyone involved, Howes noted, but teachers often felt a responsibility to resolve them anyway.
“In a way, we’re part of our own burnout because you don’t want to pass up this opportunity,” she said. “And even though we advise people to set limits, it’s hard when a child says, ‘I need help. Or when you have a kid who just says, “It’s not even about homework. I feel so sad ‘or’ I’m just struggling ‘. You don’t want to let him go. You want to try to help.
For other teachers, the decision to leave was motivated by economic reality. While high salaries are generally not expected in education, the added pressure and increased working hours during distance learning seemed to be driving a tipping point.
Meanwhile, the contract schedule hasn’t helped matters, according to administrators. With contract renewals usually due in the spring, many teachers were forced to decide in the winter whether they should continue for another year, before knowing when they might be scheduled for a vaccination and long before whether schools would reopen. completely in the fall. .
“It wasn’t clear what this year would look like, so they decided to exercise their options,” Howes said. “And they just couldn’t face another year.”
Now, with the school year underway, SAU 13 is doing what it can to turn the tide, running job ads in newspapers and online job boards. During recruitment efforts and during interviews, school staff will highlight the lifestyle that accompanies life in the Lakes Region and stress the importance for applicants of finding a school that matches their interests.
But the squeeze on hiring has forced district leaders to make adjustments. They have resorted to substitutes in some cases, although there are also shortages. They changed the schedules to group together students who might normally have their own teacher or paraprofessional, while also trying to keep “cohorts” small to minimize transmission of COVID-19.
More importantly, Whaland said, district and school officials have tried to include existing staff in discussions about how best to manage the scarce resources.
“Bring the teachers together and discuss: We know that we are in a ‘para’ here, a teacher there; how can we do this? What are our strategies? he said. “It usually gets a lot more buy-in and quite frankly they have much better ideas than I could have on my own.”
The length of the hiring challenges is a matter of speculation.
“I think it will be a long term setback,” Christina said. “Even before the pandemic, we had staff shortages in school districts and while this exacerbated it, unfortunately I don’t see a quick turnaround. ”
Whaland has a rosier view.
“I don’t think it’s permanent,” he said. “… I think it’s going to take a while. I think it will take a little time to get young people interested in education.
“I think,” he added, “it comes down to being valued. “