June 22, 2022

Staffing shortages challenge Michigan school districts

For many years, the mere mention of education or schools evoked thoughts such as learning, achievement, and the expansion of young minds.

However, mention education and schools today and one of the first words that is likely to come is scarcity. It’s because schools all over the country today face great shortages and it’s not in funding, supplies, buildings or technology that we’re talking about being in short supply – it’s the people.

Yes, there is a vital shortage of people willing to work at different levels of the education system, starting with the most important of them all: teachers. This is not a new problem as it has been around for many years, but it is now reaching crisis point in terms of the number of young people wanting to get into teaching.

I remember attending school board meetings 7-10 years ago when superintendents started bringing this issue before their board as a matter of concern. What was once a scenario of dozens of applications for an open teaching position within a school district has dwindled to next to nothing in some areas.

Now school officials are visiting colleges in an attempt to recruit some of the few applicants who still want to pursue a career in teaching. The tables have completely turned because instead of a teacher candidate selling themselves to the district, the district must now sell themselves to the candidate.

It’s a game plan that could lead to a whole bunch of trouble down the road in terms of getting the best possible person into a system. You want a candidate who can give students in this district a top-notch education instead of just plugging the first available body to fill a hole.

What makes this scenario even more problematic is that not all public school districts in Michigan are funded equally. Some receive far more funding per student than others, so they can afford to pay higher salaries and sometimes cash bonuses to attract these applicants, making them an uneven playing field for hiring new people. personnel for the less funded districts.

But in reality, it’s so easy to see why the vast majority of 2022 high school graduates will consider all sorts of careers to pursue instead of teaching. They have just seen teachers in the district they attended as a student have their benefits cut, be slandered locally by parents and statewide by some lawmakers who oppose the Michigan Education Association.

It doesn’t paint a rosy picture for a kid coming out of K-12 to want to say, “Oh yeah, give me some of that for the next 35 years of my life.” And you really can’t blame them for feeling that way, because they’ve seen with their own eyes how many of their teachers have gone above and beyond to provide them with a great educational experience, but they’ve been criticized for it.

Today’s educators are essentially the Rodney Dangerfields of the world in that they “get no respect”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the level of stress for people in the world of education. Switching from in-class to online education can’t be an easy task, especially when you’re dealing with kids who have learning disabilities or aren’t motivated to take distance education.

Alarmingly, a recent Michigan Education Association survey shows that 1 in 5 current teachers (20%) are expected to leave the field in the next two to three years. Some of those leaving have acquired enough time to retire, but others leave on their own simply because they are fed up with what has happened.

Today’s superintendents have to feel like a Major League Baseball manager whose starting pitcher gets tossed around by an opposing team and he has no one in the bullpen to bring into the game. It’s a pretty sad situation.

You would think that getting the best education for our children would be a top priority or major concern for all of us, because these children are essentially our future. However, outside the world of education, concern over these shortages has not gained the public traction it needs for change to occur.

This lack of concern is quite surprising after what happened over the past two years when children were forced to learn at home due to the pandemic. Many parents have been totally lost trying to educate their child at home and jumped for joy when learning returned to the classroom, but what if there isn’t enough teachers at school to do the job properly later?

It’s a proven fact that a small class size produces a lot more academic success. What if a teacher shortage forces some schools to have one teacher for every 40 or more students in a class? It’s a pretty scary thought as to the quality of learning that would take place.

The sad thing is that the world of education has faced shortcomings in other areas, such as finding substitute teachers to replace when teachers have to be absent from school due to illness or for another reason. This puts a strain on the rest of the teaching staff who are sometimes called upon to fill these openings.

Another area that has been a problem over the past few years is finding school bus drivers. They haul very large cargo to and from school every day, but school districts have been challenged to find enough people to handle this important task.

The K-12 learning years are the building blocks that lay the groundwork for children to succeed in life. Perhaps serious discussions can begin on how to address staffing shortages even before I see you again on Monday.

Ken Grabowski is the retired deputy editor of the Manistee News Advocate who has spent more than 36 years in the newspaper business.