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'We try to do our best:' West Michigan school districts need more teachers

Both Grand Rapids and Holland Public Schools say are in need of math, special education and bilingual immersion teachers due to the nationwide teacher shortage.

While West Michigan students have been in the classroom full-time for close to an entire school year, there are less teachers in the classrooms. At the start of the pandemic, close to 470,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. public school system. Just over 100,000 of those jobs have been made up since then.

Grand Rapids Public Schools are 67 teachers short, and one teacher at Campus Elementary School says she misses the support of having a full staff. 

"This is my twenty-seventh year in education," Kindergarten Teacher Carmen Dunbar says. 

In the first two and a half decades in the classroom, teaching was a completely different story. 

"The environment was pleasant and inviting because we didn't have a lot of stress on us," she says.

Now, that stress is felt daily. It's there when she's teaching her students, falling behind because of the pandemic. 

"I'm seeing kids that come in not knowing their letters or names, and it's hard to get them to sit down and focus for even 15 minutes on a lesson," Dunbar says.

Remote learning still has to happen when kids are exposed or an outbreak temporarily closes school. 

"They miss so much school," she says. "We try to do our best."

Another added burden is fewer teachers in the district to shoulder the weight. 

"Having the support of our colleagues is so important, and we miss that when they're gone," Dunbar says. 

The teacher shortage is a trend that Board Trustee Kristian Grant says has been going on for years now. 

"It's not just due to COVID, but COVID has exacerbated things," she says.

The district hit its peak of available teaching jobs during the pandemic. 

"At the height of our vacancies, we have 270 total vacancies, and 100 of those were for teachers," Grant says. "At this point, we have about 67 teacher positions to fill, but it is hard."

Closer to the lakeshore, Holland Public Schools need more teachers, too. 

"This year, we've seen a very large turnover in staff," Deputy Superintendent Dr. Karen Sherwood says. 

She says the district usually never starts a school year with open positions. Right now, the district still needs 15 teachers and instructional assistants. 

"Fortunately for us, we have great staff so everyone is willing to chip in, but it does add an added layer of stress," Dr. Sherwood says.

It's not just full-time teachers in low-supply, but substitute teachers are hard to come by too. 

"We can have anything from a 50 percent to a 80 percent fill rate, and we have days where we have 18 unfilled positions. That would be a high for us," she says. "That makes it difficult when were covering it internally because it's always our staff that's covering it."

When there are not enough people working, teachers might keep their kids from their art or music class because that specials teacher needs to take care of another class. 

"We love our kids, but we just need a down minute, and we really don't have that at all," fourth grade teacher Sandra Valk says. 

For her, that means spending more time with her students. That's less time to prepare for a lesson, upload remote learning material for sick students or even just take a break.

"We had a survey about anxiety and it's high," she says. "For teachers, we have that personality to want to help everyone. It's wanting to help everybody and it's just harder."

All of this can bleed into the teacher-parent relationship, which Valk says has become strained because teachers are working with fewer resources than before.  

"I want parents to give us grace and assume we want the best [for the students] rather than assuming the negative," she says.

One positive for both Valk and Dunbar is that their students are back in the classroom. 

"You just really are able to connect with the kids more, and the kids can feel it too," Valk says.

Both Grand Rapids and Holland Public School Districts say they're really in need of special education and bilingual immersion teachers, as well as math teachers. 

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