Districts struggle to fill vacancies.
Reaching Their Limit
Facing burnout, teachers leave for their mental health.
Louisiana lags in average teacher pay.
Graduates leave education
Fewer students are enrolling to become new teachers.
Districts experiment with other ways to hire teachers.
There’s an essential part of the classroom that is missing: It’s our teachers.
We are hearing about a massive teacher shortage nationwide, and teachers are feeling it too. About 55 percent of educators now indicate they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned, according to a National Education Association survey conducted last year. Some teachers blame burnout caused by a shortage of teachers.
In Crisis: Districts struggle to fill vacancies.
“Our education system is in crisis,” said Celeste Muller, a 5th-grade teacher in St. Tammany Parish.
Muller has a background in business, but 15 years ago she decided to follow her dream of teaching.
“I always felt a calling to teach and help others, and lead,” Muller said.
When she started teaching in St. Tammany Parish, she had what many considered a plum job teaching in one of Louisiana’s most successful districts.
“When I came in 2002 to transfer fair, I was coming from out of state. It was 300 people for 10 jobs. Talk about competition,” said Brant Osborn, president of St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees.
But now, times have changed. Osborn says the competition just isn’t the same. The district that was so desirable for teachers now finds itself short-staffed.
“We’re experiencing a tremendous shortage in all of our personnel, but amazingly teachers,” St. Tammany Parish Schools Superintendent Frank Jabbia said.
Jabbia says there are currently 92 teaching vacancies, and that number does not include any teachers that announce retirements in May.
New Orleans and Jefferson Parish public schools are also struggling with the shortage. NOLA Public Schools is partnering with recruitment organizations like Teach for America to help overcome the barrier. Jefferson Parish, who had 143 teacher vacancies as of last week, says it is applying for an in-house teacher certification program.
“We are seeing numbers we haven’t seen before,” Jabbia said. “There’s a lot of employees who, given the opportunity to retire if they are of age or of years, they are taking advantage of that right now because there is a lot of pressure.”
“There’s a lot of pressure on teachers right now - more than in the past because at the same time they are trying to teach kids new material, they are also trying to recover learning loss and time we lost due to COVID,” he added.
Reaching Their Limit: Facing burnout, teachers leave for their mental health.
The pandemic has also led to more unexpected teacher absences. It’s resulted in teachers having to split classes.
“We’ve come up with a way to reimburse our teachers. If they are willing to give up their planning time, we will compensate them if they will give up that one-hour planning” Jabbia said.
But with no planning breaks, teachers are reaching their limits, says Rebecca Cavalier, a 10th grade English teacher in New Orleans.
“I lost three colleagues this month, this past month, and one of the top reasons is mental health,” Cavalier said. “I feel like we’ve been in survival mode with the pandemic, with Hurricane Ida.”
But Osborn said the problems began well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are so many problems with education. COVID just magnified all of them. COVID maybe pushed people to retire,” Osborn said.
He believes one problem teachers express concern over is too much government interference in teacher autonomy and the curriculum taught in classrooms.
“Being over-worked and underpaid. We have the teacher plate and it keeps getting piled on, but very seldom, if ever, do we take things off,” Osborn said. “And it’s driving people to decide - I can’t do this anymore.”
“There have been monumental changes with teacher autonomy when we could have a teacher choice in what we taught,” he added. “A lot of curriculum have rolled down through the years. They need to stop treating it like a business model. It’s not a business model, these are children.”
What Muller calls a “scripted curriculum” has taken away teacher freedom.
“We have to reach certain benchmarks even when those benchmarks make no sense for the students right in front of us,” Cavalier said.
The Pay: Louisiana lags in average teacher pay.
James Soule left teaching last month for a job in sales. He said that teachers would be more willing to put up with the mess if their pay was better.
“When I had my first son and my wife was staying at home, we were on public assistance with WIC,” Soule said. “And my first thought was as a state employee I should never be on public assistance. That doesn’t add up to me at all.”
The Louisiana Department of Education says the average teacher salary in 2019-2020 was $51,779. That is below the average salary of $53,340 regionally and $62,304 nationally, according to data from the Southern Regional Education Board.
“I used to teach in New York, and definitely took a big salary cut when I came here. And I’d love to say the cost of living is much less, but it’s really not,” Cavalier said.
Graduates leave education: Fewer students are enrolling to become new teachers.
Nationally, the ratio of hires to job openings in education has reached new lows. The National Education Association says there are currently .57 hires for every open position.
“Because they are seeing people that are miserable, overworked, underpaid and they say, ‘I don’t want that for myself,’” Osborn said.
Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Kim Hunter Reed has set up a task force looking at the challenges with recruitment and retention of teachers. She says less students are enrolling in college for education, and even fewer are completing their degrees. Couple that with an exodus from classrooms and the situation becomes urgent.
“The colleges and universities are all telling us the students are just not there,” Jabbia said.
Hunter Reed is looking into solutions. One possibility is bringing retired teachers back into the classroom, but return to work laws have been challenging.
“We have to take a look at that,” Hunter Reed said. “But several people have said if we want a surge solution, that is the way to go. Try to get retired teachers back while we build this pipeline along the way, so that too will be on the table.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is proposing a teacher pay raise of $1,500 for kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and a $750 raise for school support staff.
“We’ve got to do more,” Jabbia said. “I think Governor Edwards is taking a step forward. I don’t think it’s enough.”
Alternative Fixes: Districts experiment with other ways to hire teachers.
To try to fill those classroom vacancies quickly, Jabbia plans to host an alternative teaching certification program starting this summer so non-education graduates can earn a teaching certificate. The eight-week program would allow non-education college graduates to learn the ins and outs of being a teacher. The school district will pay for the program and those who join will commit three years to St. Tammany Parish Schools.
“It’s a great way to attract people who live in St. Tammany who didn’t think about education originally,” Jabbia said.
The teachers say they hope for a seat at the table to make decisions that impact them and the kids they teach.
“We need to get back to basics. We need to allow our teachers to teach, be the professionals they are, and stop chasing fads,” Osborn said. “And stop throwing government money to solve a problem that our professionals can solve.”
“We wish people would trust our certifications and our high level of degrees that are required to have this job,” Muller said.
They worry that unless real action is taken, classrooms will continue to lose the most vital part of the room: the teacher.