Kansas faces shortage of teachers and substitutes

BY RAEGAN NEUFELD

Feature image courtesy pixabay.com

In 2020, everyone working in the education profession had to make adjustments. Teachers were praised for their hard work and dedication to students during an unprecedented time of remote learning. 

Nearly two years later in October 2021, the official number of vacant positions reported by schools to the Kansas State Department of Education was 1,250. A year prior, the number was 840.

“When the pandemic first hit, there was a movement of ‘teachers are heroes’ and ‘we love you for what you’re doing,’ but that evaporated pretty quickly,” said Chad Meitner, Thomas More Prep-Marian High School principal. “It’s still been a tough year with a number of kids being absent due to illness, and there’s expectations from families that you’ll teach them even when they’re home sick along with the 20 kids in your classroom.”

Meitner said that while his school in Hays isn’t suffering from a shortage of teachers at the moment, changes to the lives of two or three people would bring about problems.

“It’s not as bad as I know some other schools are dealing with,” he said. “If it weren’t for a core of three or four really loyal substitutes, we would be in a pickle. While we seem to have good support and coverage now, it’s only one step away from being a real difficulty.”

Not surprisingly, the largest number of vacancies across the state are in the Hutchinson, Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City areas. School districts in these cities and surrounding towns have vacant positions ranging from custodial to superintendent, and from elementary to secondary.

State of Kansas Education job postings. Image from Educate Kansas website’s interactive map

According to Mischel Miller, KSDE director of teacher licensure, the positions with the most openings are special education, science, English/language art, and math.

“We did ask this year for the first time why educators were leaving,” Miller said. “We found out that for health or personal reasons, more were leaving than previously, which would be the result of a pandemic. The number of substitute licenses was also up by 2,000 in 2021, so that tells me that more substitutes were needed to cover the vacant positions across the state.”

More recently, part of the reason why teachers are leaving might be burnout.

“Burnout is real,” Meitner said. “Our teachers are like anybody else, and they feel the stress of things. So, I think we’ve just internally tried to make sure we show that we’re very thankful. We try to be open to the conversation that burnout is OK. When we all have a chance to talk about it, it sure helps when you see other people going through the same thing you’re going through.”

Fort Hays State University’s Teacher Education Department Chair Chris Jochum also said teacher burnout, and how college students in the program can be prepared, is important to discuss.

“The interesting thing about teacher preparation is that at best, we prepare them for the beginning of maybe their first semester on the job. Then for better or worse, the culture of the district where they work takes over,” Jochum said. “We do discuss both for students’ and teachers’ self-care. It’s kind of tied into when we talk about social-emotional learning for students, so there is an awareness of that through the mentoring conversations and those types of things.”

In some cases, not only are more educators leaving the profession, fewer are coming in. According to Jochum, the number of future teachers in the FHSU virtual program is down. However, this fall there were more on-campus students in the program than the year before.

“That represents Kansas communities,” he said. “Most of those students come from Kansas communities and want to stay in Kansas and teach. Overall, yes the numbers are down, but there’s still some promising aspects when you look into the numbers.”

Also promising for Jochum is the efforts of the students in his department.

“A while back, Dr. Betsy Crawford, who is a professor up here, had a very profound observation. Despite the teacher shortage and the issues that we hear about, every day we have classrooms full of students that want to be teachers,” Jochum said. “That is very positive. I think the students we have are committed to teaching, and I think it helps that they have really good instructors across the board that care about them and are advocates for the field.”

Miller had similar sentiments about the education field. 

“Teaching is the greatest, most rewarding profession in the world,” she said. “We need more people who want to do it and make an impact on society. I really just want to help elevate that opportunity.”

As for the actual problem of vacant education positions, there is not a single, definitive, end-all solution, officials said.. Instead, a combination of solutions can begin to steady one of the most impactful careers.

“I think we really need to be sure that we’re appreciating the hard work of our teaching professionals. That’s everyone,” Miller said. “That’s bus drivers, principals, school cooks, custodians and valuing their voice in the conversation so they feel really engaged in a local school system.”

Meitner wants to encourage high-school students to consider teaching in the future.

“Helping kids who are maybe juniors and seniors in high school see how fun and magical a classroom can be from the teachers’ perspective might inspire them to want to be a teacher,” he said. “I think that’s a long-term solution, is to constantly be enjoying each other’s time and seeing how cool education can be together with kids and teachers in a classroom.”

For Jochum, a way to help educators stay in the profession is to focus on the leaders.

“One way is to make sure we’re putting the right leaders in our schools,” he said. “We have really good leaders across the board, but just in general the leader sets the tone for the building and establishes the culture. It’s not a cure-all, but I do know that when the leader gets better, the organization gets better.”

For any information about educator preparation or teaching licenses, visit ksde.org

Vacant positions at local schools (Source: educateKansas.org):

Hays USD 489

  • Anticipated Elementary Classroom Teacher (2022-2023)
  • Certified Teacher, Early Childhood Connections (x2)

Ellis USD 388

  • Supplemental Positions (HS Football, Scholars Bowl, National Honor Society)
  • Language Arts Teacher & Yearbook
  • Math/Physics Teacher

Russell USD 407

  • High or Low Incidence Special Education Teacher
  • 5th Grade Teacher
  • Middle School Science Teacher
  • Vocational Agriculture Teacher and FFA Advisor
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