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Staffing shortages are plaguing school districts. How did we get here?

The pandemic has played a role in the staffing shortage, but it's not the only reason for the shortage and teacher burnout.

PORTLAND, Ore. — This year more than ever, school districts across Oregon, Washington and the rest of the country are struggling to fill positions. It's a problem across the board, from teaching positions to office staff.

Frustration is spilling over. On Monday, teachers across the Portland Public School District demonstrated outside some school buildings before and after school trying to bring attention to how staffing issues are impacting students.

"When we don't have staff in the building, when we don't have staff to support us, like Friday, we had 15 teachers out, what happens is it is hard to manage all of the things that are happening with the kids and all of their needs,” said Ginger Huizar, a special education teacher at George Middle School.

The pandemic has played a role in the staffing shortage, but it's not the only reason for the shortage and teacher burnout.

For those of us on the outside of the education world, seeing all the school districts that are offering hiring incentives may seem like the situation came out of the blue this school year.

But those working in education say the issue has been building for some time.

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Teacher burnout

“Teachers are feeling fragile. Teachers are feeling exhausted,” said Nicole Butler-Hooton, the 2021 Oregon Teacher of the Year as well as a second and fourth-grade teacher in the Bethel School District in Eugene.

“We've already have lost over 3,000 substitute teachers since the pandemic began,” Anthony Rosilez, executive director of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) said.

The TSPC is responsible for licensing all the K-12 educators in the State of Oregon.

“Now, here we are, faced with those needs be even greater than before and we have an incredible staffing shortage, and that staffing shortage is not allowing us to be able to put in place the staffing that our students need,” added Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association.

So how did we get here?

Rosilez said there are multiple factors to consider. About five years ago, he started noticing a decline in teachers entering the profession.

“It's the stress of the work, school violence, you know, just the increased academic rigor that we expect, which is good for our students. Then on top of that, you add concerns about health,” said Rosilez.

All those factors are making some people question if teaching is the right career choice for them. Rosilez said 40-50% of teachers leave the profession in three to five years and diverse educators specifically leave at an even greater rate.

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When it comes to teachers of color...

Rosilez said it basically boils down to a lack of adequate support.

“If a school can hire an educator of color, a BIPOC educator, that educator may be the only person in their building, who's a person of color,” said Rosilez.

He said teachers of color have said there are unique pressures and challenges associated with being the only person of color in the school. For instance, while it may be well-intended, school administrators or other educators may rely on the teacher for any race-related or diversity issue that comes up.

It can also be difficult for teachers of color to find community both inside school walls and outside in the greater community. That’s especially true if they’ve taken a teaching position in an area without much diversity.

Scott-Schwalbach said educators of color have indicated that they sometimes feel isolated and alone when they enter a school system that might not be very diverse.

Rosilez also said some teacher education programs are located far away from some of the more rural districts and closer to some of the larger and more diverse districts.

Perceived value = compensation

For Butler-Hooton, the teacher shortage can be linked to making teachers feel valued through compensation.

“Teachers deserve higher compensation for the work that they do every single day in and out of the classrooms.”

“I still struggle with the compensation that I have received over 16 years of teaching and what that looks like […] in relation to the work and what I do on a daily basis,” said Butler-Hooton.

She said these days, student needs and expectations of teachers are great.

“I think the problem of practice becomes well how do we do this job and do it well,” said Butler-Hooton.

Teachers have more on their plates

“Teachers’ hours are 8 a.m.- 4p.m., but I have never in a day in my life been done at 4 p.m.”

She said that's especially true now with teachers doing more than they were expected to do years ago. Now, they often find themselves wearing the hats of social worker, counselor, and problem solver as they tend to students’ social and emotional needs. Butler-Hooton said to a certain extent, teachers have always worn multiple hats, but needs seem to have increased in the last five or so years.

Rosilez said it’s a similar situation with substitute teachers as well.

“Many of our districts haven't looked at substitute teacher pay for many years,” said Rosilez.

When it comes to the shortage of substitute teachers, Rosilez said there are geographical factors at work. Some areas in the state just have more access to substitutes than others. Then there's the aging workforce. Some teachers retired early because of the pandemic. 

The past influencing the present

Scott-Schwalbach said what happened more than a decade ago also didn't help.

“We lost a whole generation of folks when we were defunding schools and not supporting the folks who were already there in that 2008-2010 period,” said Scott-Schwalbach. “They all found jobs in other sectors and they let their license lapse.”

The past playing a role in the present, during a time that's becoming increasingly difficult for some educators to consider their jobs worth it, despite their love for it.

“There's never been a harder time to become a teacher. But I can tell you also, there's never been a more impactful and important time to become a teacher,” said Rosilez.

On Tuesday, KGW plans to examine some of the potential long-term and short-term ideas that could make a difference in the staffing shortage.

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