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Are Schools Facing A Mounting Teacher Shortage? Administrators Say Hiring Has Been Atypical

When Melissa Harrison graduated with her master’s degree to be a media specialist in 2017, she struggled to find a school librarian position near her home in Currituck County.

Back then she took the only job opening she could find in North Carolina, with about a 45-minute commute from her home. This spring, Harrison found more options.

“This year, there's been quite a few openings for media specialists across the board,” Harrison said. “So I found one in my district where I live. It's only five minutes away.”

That’s great news for her, but when she told the principal at her elementary school in Elizabeth City that she would be leaving, she realized she was part of a trend. Several experienced teachers at that school also resigned this past year.

“My school had lost teachers to charter schools, to early retirement and teachers who just said, ‘I can't do it anymore... my sanity is more important than continuing in this position,’” Harrison said.

It appeared to her to be a big problem for that small rural district, and she thought the statewide picture could look even worse.

WUNC surveyed school districts across our listening area, and several districts responded that they are seeing more vacancies than usual or hearing concerns from administrators about the difficulty of hiring qualified candidates.

Harrison wonders if there is a growing teacher and staff shortage born out of the pressures of the pandemic.

Her biggest worry is that when schools are short-staffed, everyone else has to do more to help supervise students in hallways, at lunch, or getting to the bus.

“You still need a basic number, a minimum number of staff just to keep the school running,” Harrison said.

Being a data-lover, one day in July she counted all the school job openings in the state. She found 12,614 vacancies.

That might sound like a lot, but is it? The number includes all vacancies, from teachers to bus drivers to office staff.

“It doesn't strike me as terribly large relative to the entire population of folks that we need to run the enterprise of educating North Carolina's public schools,” said Tom Tomberlin, of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Tomberlin heads educator recruitment and preparation at the department and part of his job is writing annual reports on the state of the teaching profession that count teacher vacancies each fall. In a typical year, about 7,000 to 8,000 North Carolina teachers leave, due to retirement, changing careers or moving.

Tomberlin says he wouldn’t be surprised if early retirements are higher when he eventually gets data from this past school year. But he says the number of teaching vacancies has always been remarkably stable. He doesn’t track data on non-teaching staff.

By late September, the statewide teacher vacancy rate is typically around 1% to 1.5%.

“That's a pretty low rate,” Tomberlin said. “Now the trick is to reduce it.”

Schools that can’t fill teaching positions often have to find a long-term substitute until they’re able to hire a permanent teacher, which can be more challenging once the usual hiring season ends.

Principals are hiring this summer to prevent vacancies, which tend to affect rural districts in particular.

Sarah Chicchi Estes, the principal of Virginia Cross Elementary in Siler City, says she’s been spending more time this summer going through applications and setting up interviews than in previous years.

“It's definitely taking a bit more time than typical,” Chicchi Estes said. “Principals have been very busy.”

Chicchi Estes thinks some of her employees left because the pandemic changed their priorities. Some changed careers, moved to be closer to family or sought higher-paying jobs.

Thankfully her school has filled all its open positions for classroom teachers, but many of the candidates are non-traditional. Chatham County used an agency to help recruit international teachers from places like Honduras and Colombia to help serve their large Spanish-speaking population.

“It seems like we've seen less teachers that are going through the typical teacher preparation programs that have been applying,” Chicchi Estes said.

That means fewer candidates with degrees in education and student teaching experience. Enrollment at education schools in the UNC System has been declining in recent years, although Tomberlin says that trend is leveling off.

This year, Chicchi Estes saw more applicants who are changing careers to get into teaching. Those “lateral entry” teachers are often highly motivated, but they have to complete education courses and licensing exams during their first years in the classroom — and statistically, they’re less likely to stay in the profession long term.

“I don't know why we have more lateral entry candidates,” Chicchi Estes said. “I've kind of been questioning why we have less certified candidates?”

Her school is also struggling to hire custodians and instructional assistants. The Chatham County Board of Education is contracting with an outside employer to recruit custodians. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is getting help from an outside agency to hire substitutes. Wake County Schools is offering bonuses for instructional assistants.

Schools often compete with other employers to hire those lower-wage positions.

There’s no way to know now exactly how many school positions across the state may still be unfilled when school starts, as the hiring shuffle continues through August.

“I don't know if I can definitively say that there's a shortage,” Chicchi Estes said. “However, this year certainly seems different.”

Schools must submit data on teacher vacancies from the 2020-2021 school year this fall, which the Department of Public Instruction will report this coming winter.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.