In most places, school is either back in session or will be soon. Most school districts would like to be done with the “hiring phase” of school year planning at this point but that is not the case in many places. There is a nationwide teacher shortage, but it is much worse in some places than others. Urban and rural areas in general have been hit harder than suburban ones. The Indianapolis metropolitan area has over a thousand vacancies across its many school districts. The numbers of vacancies can tell us one thing but what does this mean in real terms for students or teachers? How does a school function with such a lean staff?
This is a question that unfortunately many teachers including myself, have had to learn the answer to. Between COVID-19 and general turnover, many inner-city schools have already experienced a staffing shortfall. Here is what it looks like day to day in a school:
Teachers are the first to feel the shortage.
A shortage of teachers always means more work for the teachers who are there. This may start informally. You have to do lunch duty more often. You have a longer stretch of hallway to watch during transitions. But if the shortage gets worse, it could quickly turn into more students being moved into your class. It is not uncommon in understaffed schools to find teachers “teaching” a section of a subject they weren’t originally supposed to teach. Some schools cope with an unfilled vacancy in a class by removing the class altogether which means that each class for the teachers who are there gets a little bit longer.
I have filled in as a “sub” for classes missing a teacher. I have also had each of my classes extended by 10 minutes to fill the void of an empty block on the schedule. (For any administrators reading, your teachers generally prefer the latter.)
Students will feel it too.
At the start of the year most schools will have already created schedules and plans based around their staffing shortage. Yes, if a student went to that school the previous year, they will likely notice larger classes and a shortage of offerings especially in terms of electives, but in general, students won’t perceive the gaps as glaringly as the staff does. However, if you are a school that struggles to hire people … you are probably also a school that struggles to keep people, and mid-year turnover is the hardest to deal with. This is when students will notice.
They know when a teacher will quits. Many times the teacher has an in-class meltdown or crying session before leaving and never returning. Students will notice when their math teacher is all of a sudden teaching science too. Obviously, they can tell when they don’t have art anymore. They will also have strong feelings about having to change classes in the middle of the year if it comes to that.
Administrators are forced to make tough decisions.
Obviously, all of this falls square on the plate of principals who have to pull together the pieces. Dealing with the logistics of a shortage is hard because asking more of your current teachers could push them away. Nobody wants to randomly get more kids in their class or have to teach on their prep. You can also hire people without licenses or degrees which dramatically increases the talent pool, but those hires generally need more help and coaching.
The teacher shortage is not going away anytime soon. More people are going to get used to being chronically understaffed. Hopefully the conditions that have created this shortage subside so that we don’t slip into a “new normal” of understaffing.