There’s a shortage of educators in New Hampshire – and COVID is only part of the reason

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 9/20/2021 6:20:20 PM

There was a time when an opening for an English teacher at Madison Elementary School would draw 30 to 40 applicants. 

These days, Michael Whaland said, the school is lucky to get six.

Whaland, the superintendent of SAU 13, which includes Freedom, Madison, and Tamworth, knows the numbers well. Two weeks after classes began, his district is missing two teachers, four paraprofessionals, and a principal across its three schools. 

For Whaland, the situation has a personal resonance; he wrote his doctoral dissertation on teacher retention difficulties in rural schools. But COVID-19 has exacerbated those difficulties.

“In my last district we had positions that were open the entire year, and they didn’t get filled,” said Whaland, who took the role of SAU 13 superintendent in July. “So I think it’s one of those situations where you have to hope for the best but expect the worst.”

It’s a near-universal story. New Hampshire schools have returned to in-person learning this month, but many are shorthanded. The pressures of sluggish overall hiring trends combined with school environments that have become the focal point of political and epidemiological debates in recent months has led to a scarcity of teaching candidates.

“If it’s not every school board or every school district, it’s certainly statewide,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

In fact, it’s a national problem. According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association this year, 80 percent of the organization’s members said they had seen more educators retiring or leaving the job since the pandemic started. Thirty-seven percent of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave earlier than they planned – an increase from 28 percent in May 2020.

Public schools and private schools have filled job-search websites, with many openings for support jobs from custodial work to paraprofessionals. Often, schools will post a half-dozen openings in one day.

Educators say it has been a uniquely taxing year.

“You have a lot of teachers who are just totally drained,” said Deb Howes, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire, a union in the state. “And there were more retirements than we were expecting.”

But the challenges are also structural. In an environment where every employer is competing for workers, school districts are sometimes at a disadvantage, Whaland said. Staff salaries can be locked in by hard-fought collective bargaining agreements, and administrations can’t always be as flexible as other employers when it comes to providing incentives for staff to stay.

“It’s difficult for districts to be as nimble as what’s going on in the private sector,” he said.

That means some support staff members depart for other districts, which might pay slightly more per hour. Or they can go into other industries entirely.

And with the state seeing a return to high daily COVID-19 caseloads, safety is another factor.

“Maybe people that were paraprofessionals just don’t feel comfortable going back into the building for whatever reason,” Christina said. “They’re worried about exposure. Maybe they have underlying health conditions. I think that’s played a factor.”

Among teachers, the exodus has been primarily driven by two groups, Whaland said. On one side of the spectrum are the longtime teachers who opted for retirement rather than deal with remote learning. On the other side are the brand-new teachers for whom the pandemic was a rough wake-up call regarding some of the challenges of the job, which may also be driving student teachers away from the profession.

“It’s a mix between not having folks necessarily in the pipeline and having an aging veteran corps that may not be quickly replaced,” Whaland said. “We’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge in our educational settings.”

As older and younger teachers depart, those in the middle of that age and experience spectrum – “the core group” – are largely hanging on, Whaland said.

But for all educators, burnout is a constant threat. With district-by-district decisions on when and how to return students to the classroom in 2020 and 2021, teachers were forced to adapt to ever-changing teaching environments with growing lists of digital tools.

“I think folks are really trying to do more with less,” Whaland said. “I think that there’s been a lot of people that have had to change their pedagogy. I think there’s a lot of people that have had to try new things, take risks, and it’s been hard.”

Another dynamic emerged over the past year: the rise of intensive parent-teacher and student-teacher interactions, at all hours of the day and night. With many people online and in their homes for long stretches, traditional boundary lines all but vanished.

“It was much worse with high school and middle school teachers, because students would be up later and later, and they would be doing an assignment and would be on the online platforms and looking for teacher feedback and sending instant messages through online platforms,” Howes said.

Remote learning posed impossible hardships for everyone involved, Howes noted, but teachers often felt the responsibility to fix them anyway.

“In a way we are part of our own burnout, because you don’t want to let that opportunity slip by,” she said. “And as much as we advise people to set boundaries, it’s hard to when a kid says, ‘I need help.’ Or when you have a kid who’s just saying: ‘This isn’t even about schoolwork. I’m just feeling so sad,’ or ‘I’m just having a hard time.’ You don’t want to let it go. You want to try and help.”

For other teachers, the decision to leave has been driven by economic reality. Though high salaries aren’t generally expected in the teaching field, the added pressure and increased work hours during remote learning appeared to lead to a breaking point.

Meanwhile, the contracting schedule didn’t help matters, administrators say. With contract renewals typically due by the spring, many teachers were forced to decide in the winter whether to continue for another year, before they knew when they could be scheduled for a vaccination and well before they knew whether schools would be fully reopening in the fall.

“It wasn’t clear what this year would look like, so they decided to exercise their options,” Howes said. “And they just couldn’t face another year.”

Now, with the school year underway, SAU 13 is doing what it can to reverse the trend, blasting out job offers in newspapers and online job boards. In recruitment efforts, and during interviews, school staff will highlight the lifestyle that comes with living in the Lakes Region, and emphasize the importance of candidates finding a school that’s the right fit for their interests.

But the hiring squeeze has meant district leaders have had to make adjustments. They’ve relied on substitutes in some cases – though there are shortages there, too. They’ve changed schedules to pool together students who ordinarily might have their own teacher or paraprofessional, while also trying to keep “cohorts” small to minimize COVID-19 transmission.

Most importantly, Whaland said, district and school officials have attempted to include the existing staff in discussions of how best to handle the reduced resources.

“Getting the teachers together and talking about: We know we’re down a ‘para’ here, a teacher there; how can we make this work? What are our strategies?” he said. “That typically gets a lot more buy-in and, quite frankly, they have much better ideas than I could have in isolation.”

How long the hiring challenges last is a matter of speculation.

“I think it’s going to be a long-term setback,” Christina said. “Even before the pandemic we were having staffing shortages in school districts and while this exacerbated it, I don’t see a quick turnaround, unfortunately.”

Whaland has a rosier view.

“I don’t think it’s permanent,” he said. “… I do think this is going to take some time. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to get young people interested in the field of education.

“I think,” he added, “it comes down to being valued.”

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