Experts Call Teacher Shortage a Crisis

Oct 25, 2017

About 150 school superintendents and administrators from around the state gathered in Charlottesville Tuesday to talk about a growing problem – a shortage of teachers in Virginia.  Sandy Hausman reports on why too few people are choosing to teach and what can be done about it.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Curry School Dean Robert C. Pianta, right, talk teacher shortages with moderator Stewart Roberson, center.
Credit Dan Addison, UVA Communications

While the population of school-aged children in Virginia is rising, the number of teachers has fallen, creating what some experts call a crisis. 

“There are a thousand classrooms in the state of Virginia where there is not a certified teacher or an experienced teacher," says Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at UVA.  " They’re filling with substitutes, they’re combining classrooms.  The bottom line is you’ve got groups of children that are not being taught by people with expertise to teach.”

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is not surprised, since he says the state is demanding more from today’s teachers.

“Now we’re talking about a fifth year of college – that’s a year I’m not making money and a year I’m putting out money, going deeper into debt,” Steve Staples explains. 

And the salaries aren’t that good to start with – especially in low-income areas like Petersburg, where Marcus Newsome is Superintendent. 

“Petersburg last year probably had one in six teachers as a substitute – back in the spring leading into this year one in three,” he says.

Franklin County middle school principal Bernice Cobbs says parents are none too happy when long-term subs are teaching their kids.

“Rightfully so, and I don’t blame them,” she says. 

But her district can’t offer financial incentives like a signing bonus.

“The divisions around us – many of them do --- especially for some of those hard-to-staff positions, math, sciences.”

And even with incentives, Manassas Superintendent Catherine Magouyrk says her schools can’t compete with salaries offered nearby.

"Even if we gave them a signing bonus, it would not even equal what Prince William and Fairfax pay, " she says. "What we have to do is sell them on small school system, 8,000 kids, where everyone knows your name, and whatever the problem is we’re going to fix it, because we care about you.”

That kind of thinking could be key to drawing and keeping more educators in the classroom.  State superintendent Steve Staples says more than anything teachers want to be consulted, offered support and, where possible, flexibility.

“Would it be better for you, because of your childcare situation, that you have a later start to your day, and you work later in the evening because that fits with childcare?  Are there commuter issues that we can solve?  And then once they’re in the building, are the working conditions good?  Is it a classroom that’s attractive, that’s well maintained?  Do I have resources?” 

And, he adds, teachers are drawn to special training and learning opportunities.

“Teaching is often times a lonely profession.  Here are your keys.  There are your students.  Close the door and you’re on your own. What teachers say is, “I’d like time to work with colleagues – to better my own skills and also to bounce ideas off them and to problem solve, and I think we’re seeing teachers saying, ‘I might not make as much here but I feel so supported and I love it here, and I’m going to stay.’”

During the recession, lawmakers cut state funding to schools, and many districts cut the support teachers say they need – like administrators, nurses, social workers and psychologists.  Last year Virginia’s Board of Education called on lawmakers to provide for those positions, but the General Assembly ignored that request, and state funding remains about 11% below pre-recession levels. Delegate Steve Landes, who chairs the house education committee, wasn’t making any promises about more money in 2018.

“I’m not going to commit to one bill or another,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a combination of them, and the solution is not just going to be one thing.” 

But he thought lawmakers might be willing to license teachers after four years of college rather than five.  Others at the conference proposed paying off college debt for new teachers, raising pay overall and providing a lot more assistance.  

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Curry School Dean Robert C. Pianta, right, talk teacher shortages with moderator Stewart Roberson, center