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Where have all the teachers gone?

By Karen W. Smith APR is the executive director of PenSPRA, the Pennsylvania School Public Relations Association. She is also a board member at Central Bucks SD.

There is little doubt that teachers are one of the most important factors contributing to the success of the students in our schools. They are the front line of our educational system and carry the burden of delivering the educational program developed by administrators and legislators from the central office up to the White House. Yet districts in Pennsylvania and across the nation are facing a shortage of qualified teachers, resulting in classrooms covered by an aide or administrator, or students marking time in an auditorium or library, all adding up to the loss of valuable instructional time.

Since 2010, Pennsylvania has seen a 58% decrease in the number of teaching certificates issued, and a 42% decrease in the number of emergency certifications. The drop in the number of certificates can be traced back to the drop in enrollment in teaching programs; last year there were 38% fewer teaching graduates than in the year 2000. This impacts staffing in two ways. First, there are fewer new teachers starting out as substitutes. Secondly, there are fewer teachers overall, particularly for math, science, foreign language and special education.

Why fewer high school students are choosing teaching for a profession is difficult to quantify, but has been attributed in some reviews to a negative public opinion about teachers, budget cuts and the increase in the amount and importance of standardized testing. Salary is also an issue, particularly in the fields of math and science, where students can anticipate significantly higher earnings by working directly in those fields than by teaching math or science.

Regardless of the reasons, school districts are beginning to take steps to address the issue. A common solution is to use the services of a substitute teacher service like Source 4 Teachers or Substitute Teachers Service.

“We have definitely seen in an increase in outsourcing in the past few years,” said Jay Godwin of Substitute Teachers Service. “The triple threat of PSERS increases, health care increases and the shortage of teachers has made staffing much more difficult.”

“We spend a great deal of time, effort and resources on nonstop recruiting,” said Owen Murphy of Source4Teachers. “We have regional teams in place who spend a lot of time out in the community. Whether it’s involvement with churches or attending local high school football games, our employees in the field are engaging new people regularly. We also are very engaged with those we hire to ensure we understand their interests and intentions. This helps us to place people in the types of roles that best suit them so they can feel comfortable and excel in the classroom.”

Substitute Teachers Service also works to make new subs successful. It partnered with Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 (IU) to develop a guest teacher program for potential subs who have a four-year college degree in an area other than education. Like many districts, the IU offers training sessions for substitute teachers. For the guest teacher program, the IU created a video of the training session. Potential subs can view the training online when it is convenient for their schedule.

“We have trained and processed over 500 guest teachers through this program,” Godwin said. “The participants tell us they feel much more ready to handle a classroom than before the online training, and the flexibility of the online training allows us to reach more candidates.”

Some districts are tackling the teacher shortage on their own.

“The area that remains a problem for us is at the substitute level,” said Superintendent Dr. Tod Kline of the Susquehanna Township SD (Dauphin Co.). “We have done a number of things to improve the situation, such as establishing a substitute advisory focus group which gathers information to encourage subs to work for us. We’ve hired permanent building subs assigned to each building to help cover classes and we survey all our subs periodically for feedback.”

Permanent building subs have proven to be a successful solution to shortages for the Chambersburg Area (Franklin Co.) and Central Bucks (Bucks Co.) SDs as well.

“This year our board approved a program of employing permanent building and floating substitutes throughout the district to combat our failed-to-fill vacancies,” said Andrea Didio-Hauber, of Central Bucks SD. “This has been an exceptional improvement to our shortage and has allowed the administration, faculty and staff to fulfill their assigned role instead of having to complete their assigned role and fill in for any vacancies that occur due to absences on any particular day.”

In-house training for new subs has been helpful for Central Bucks and the Charleroi Area SD (Washington Co.).

“We have successfully implemented training to recruit emergency subs,” said Superintendent Ed Zelich of Charleroi. “One of our principals held the trainings and this initiative brought us 12 new subs this year.”

Districts may also want to consider borrowing an idea from the sub services, who have used Facebook advertising to reach very targeted markets at low cost. Facebook ads are set by zip code, are simple to begin even for a novice, and can run less than $200 for a month’s worth of ads.

“Districts need to reach new groups of people who may want to sub and Facebook or other types of internet advertising can help with that,” said Godwin of Substitute Teacher Services. For example, Clark County SD in Nevada has used internet advertising very successfully and currently advertises on more than 100 websites to recruit teachers.

Fortunately, the teacher shortage has not gone unnoticed at the state level. The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s ESSA Educator Evaluation Workgroup made four recommendations last year and one specifically targets teacher recruitment. The recommendation reads, “The department should promote and increase opportunities to recruit, retain and ensure a diverse, talented and supported educator workforce.”  The group reviewed programs in other states like Illinois and South Carolina where talented high school seniors are recruited into teaching and receive significant scholarships to enter the field.

New legislation may help the situation as well. Act 86, signed into law in July 2016, can now provide districts with access to additional subs. This law allows students enrolled in a teacher preparation program with 60 completed credits to serve as subs for up to 20 days a year. Since college students are most likely to be available around the holidays and after the college year has ended in mid-May, they should prove useful at peak times of teacher absences.

Many education-related organizations, businesses and school entities are working to encourage more young people to enter the teaching profession and to offer them more opportunities as they are training. At the same time, some are reaching out to new groups of college-educated adults to bring their experience into the classroom, too. Hopefully, these combined efforts will encourage more of the best of the class to be the head of the class.  B