Written by: Reagan Flowers, Ph.D.
It takes a village to educate our youth. Teachers, staff, advocates, and parents all play crucial roles. However, school staffing has taken a big hit over the last two difficult years. New data is showing how far-reaching those effects have become. When working conditions suffer, student learning suffers, especially for underserved and underrepresented students. As we head into the next school year, we’re looking at the severity of staffing issues, who they’re impacting, and what we can do to help.
How COVID-19 Escalated Staffing Issues
COVID-19 not only brought about staffing shortages due to illness but also highlighted existing issues relating to low pay and stressful conditions. In addition, the pandemic added new complications, including fears about health safety, enforcing new regulations, facing conflicting opinions on masking and vaccines, and more. In particular, schools see significant shortages in essential workers like bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
Teacher vacancies have also become a concerning problem. A recent survey even showed that more than half of teachers have considered leaving the profession altogether. This thinking is alarming and could leave many students behind with little chance to catch up.
It’s a domino effect. Students are already struggling to close the learning gaps resulting from the missed months of classes due to COVID-19. Innovative steps are needed to retain and support classroom teachers, or many will continue to exit the profession. On top of that, fewer college students are entering the pipeline to become teachers. We are on the verge of a crisis. Schools will continue to have no choice but to increase the student-teacher ratio or to place underqualified professionals in the classroom. The bottom line is that the exodus of quality teachers creates low-quality learning experiences, further increasing the burden on teachers. Additionally, this contributes to promoting academically and socially underprepared students and increasingly graduating students not prepared to enter the workforce, trade school, or college/university. Those impacted most are the students who continue to show up, do the work given, and believe they are receiving an education that leads to social and economic mobility.
Marginalized Students May Lose the Most
It’s easy to see that staffing shortages are already impacting low-income and minority students the most. Of course, all students lose out, but marginalized students, in particular are already:
- Living in attendance zones with low-performing schools
- Attending schools with insufficient funding in areas where it is needed to make a difference academically and experientially
- Being promoted or graduated without proper preparation for the real-world
- Needing more time in the classroom to learn, an updated year-round school model
- Classroom overcrowding making it tougher to learn
- Disciplinary infractions because they are culturally and socially misunderstood
- Being assessed with tools that do not accurately measure their individual progress
- Being overlooked by the traditional “Gifted and Talented” learner model
- Experiencing digital inequity
- Not receiving access to academic opportunities that technology provides
- Lacking the understanding on how the education provided can be used to rise above their circumstances
- Lacking exposure and engagement with professionals that look like them
The aforementioned are the additional challenges the remaining teachers are left to work through with students, taking on more and more responsibility, and becoming overwhelmed by the feeling that they are failing students. These feelings are real and inevitably lead to increased teacher disengagement and discontentment. Immediate changes need to occur now and long term.
Staffing Shortages and STEM
STEM is one of the areas where teachers were already most needed, with most schools reporting they don’t have enough STEM teachers or struggle to retain them. Given that not enough qualified STEM professionals are available to fill future jobs, more and more STEM teachers will be needed, not less.
In particular, schools in impoverished and rural areas may have the most significant challenges attracting and retaining STEM teachers. These challenges are compounded further by the lack of resources and opportunities that students in schools with more resources receive.
How We Can Help Students Now
It will take a lot of work and time to turn the tide on staffing shortages, but we must do what we can to help now. Private organizations like C-STEM and community-focused businesses will prove crucial in helping where they can. At C-STEM, we provide supplemental support with competitions, toolkits, camps, and more. If there’s a school looking to boost its STEM efforts, we’re there to help wherever we can.
C-STEM community partners play a significant role by financially stepping up to help and sharing STEM professionals to offer their leadership and mentorship to students. We work closely with these partners to keep abreast of the pulse of STEM, both here in Houston and as a larger community, to make the most significant impact we can.
Finally, awareness, listening, and speaking up go a long way. If you’re a parent who sees your child’s school suffering from staffing losses, speak up and see how you can help. If you hear of children losing transportation or meals because of staffing, we all need to step up and figure it out together.
Long-Term Change is Needed
Two major things need to happen regarding the future: 1.) School teachers and staff need better incentives, and 2.) Teaching as a profession needs to be upgraded.
With the cost of college continuing to skyrocket, it’s not surprising we’re seeing fewer teachers, especially in low-income areas. However, offering more scholarships, grants, student loan forgiveness, and incentives to qualified applicants can help infuse new vitality into areas where it’s needed most.
Teacher pay increase and that of staff is a must. In the wake of COVID-19, it has become clear to the world how essential building staff is, and their pay should reflect such. Additionally, showing of appreciation for both teachers and staff is also lacking. Some ways to show appreciation could include more professional development and advancement opportunities, such as sabbaticals for research and development, more flexibility for time-off, and additional pathways to leadership.
Teaching is Also a STEM Career
Finally, we talk a lot here at C-STEM about promoting interest in STEM fields, but it’s also important to remember that STEM educators are a crucial piece of that. We need math and science teachers as much as engineers and doctors. Highlighting education careers for students, especially with more scholarships and resources for making those careers a reality, could help change how the future looks.
As a former teacher myself and someone who speaks with teachers very often, I know firsthand the struggles of our educators. I also know that within every teacher rests the passion that drove them to the field of education. The passion within teachers can be ignited (or reignited) with proper support, compensation, and appreciation of the teaching profession. We must honor that by doing all we can to help address the devastating effects of these staffing shortages.