State policies and the pandemic are putting teachers in a vicious cycle of stress and burnout.
By Laura Scudder
Across the commonwealth of Virginia, staffing issues in K-12 education have been afflicting the state’s public schools. Teachers are either leaving classrooms or not entering them to begin with. Feeling burnt out, overworked, and underpaid, there are fewer reasons for teachers to stay in their professions, and fewer incentives — like salary — for young people to enter the field.
It’s a national problem: States across the U.S. have suffered from a lack of staffing for years while trying to bounce back from the Great Recession. In a 2021 nationally representative survey from the EdWeek Research Center, only 5 percent of school administrators said they were not experiencing any staffing shortages in their schools or districts.
But Virginia is particularly bad. With Virginia coming in 26th for teacher salary in the U.S., the turnover rate for teaching positions has been above 10 percent for nearly a decade.
And it’s reached a breaking point with the pandemic. Virginia’s position vacancies have more than doubled in the last 10 years: According to the Virginia Board of Education’s 2020 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia, the number of unfilled positions for the 2019-2020 academic year stood at 1,063. This number is more than twice the number of unfilled positions from the 2010 to 2011 school year, which stood at 440.
The rampant number of unfilled positions are stretching educators thin, making the work itself stressful — which only contributes to people having no desire to take teaching jobs. These vacancies, combined with pandemic problems, have created a greater need for substitute teachers, but there is trouble even gathering substitutes for schools. Some districts have tried to combat the teacher gap by changing requirements for substitute teaching, and state officials have brainstormed potential solutions, but without substitutes to cover for them, teachers are suffering from more burnout and are struggling to even make medical appointments.
While it’s been an issue for years, the K-12 teaching shortage is now being recognized after being exacerbated by the pandemic — and Virginia’s individuals and lawmakers alike are taking steps to provide solutions for the state’s school systems.
While staffing shortages predate the pandemic, quarantine and isolation protocols have only contributed to the issue. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), Virginia’s largest public school system, has been trying to actively combat the shortage troubles in the short term.
In a message to parents on January 6, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand shared ways in which the school system covers a classroom in the event a teacher is out. Aside from selecting a substitute teacher from the sub pool, the options include pulling another staff member to fill in, and even pairing classrooms together.
One FCPS school has experienced the effects of staffing shortages firsthand. Jamey Chianetta, the principal of Fort Belvoir Elementary School’s upper school, said that all of these methods have happened at Fort Belvoir when no substitutes can fill for a teacher — but they’re used as a last resort.
“If you don’t have substitutes, then you’ve got to figure out how to manage this group of children, and it can be really, really challenging,” she says. “So we might be pulling people off of their regular assignment, which means that people might not get the services they normally get.”
Chianetta says that they have had to split a class up into different rooms — something she notes can negatively affect both students and educators alike, since the teacher getting a larger class size for the day has less of themselves to give when supporting students.
Chianetta says that she feels the rest of the education world is understanding problems that have been hitting Fort Belvoir for years. Being on a military post, Chianetta says that the school has always had an issue getting and retaining a substitute pool — people may not be able or want to come to the post, or regular substitutes have to move away since they are part of a military family. She sees the same shortage issues now happening county-wide.
“Amid the Omicron surge post- winter break, FCPS enacted an ‘all hands on deck’ strategy to deploy Central Office employees to provide assistance in every aspect of school operations as needed,” says Kathleen Miller, a media outreach specialist for FCPS.
Elizabeth Rhoten, a fourth grade teacher at Fort Belvoir, says it can certainly be stressful to try to take time off for even things like medical appointments when no one is available to fill her classroom.
“A lot of that burnout comes from [the fact that] you can’t schedule your appointments … Even to just take care of ourselves,” she says. “It’s a long day here, and we start late and we end late. So if I’m at home before 5 o’clock, it’s a good day.”
Rhoten says that when she taught in Hawaii, things were different. She had enough leave to take mental health days, and a plethora of substitutes that could step in for her. Here, she has to be more choosy about which days she takes off. Being an elementary teacher who has to be a master of all subjects for her students, the lesson planning involved in preparing for a day off is its own beast.
Elementary educators such as Rhoten are in need in the commonwealth. For the 2021-2022 school year, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) determined “shortages by subject matter as designated from the top ten academic disciplines identified in an annual survey of school divisions.” The top teacher shortage subject areas for schools included special education, elementary education, PreK-6, and middle education grades 6-8.
Being a fourth grade teacher, Rhoten noted that she sees the challenges of staffing elementary education, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I’ve taught middle school, and I will tell you, my middle school day was super easy compared to what I do in an elementary school,” she says, noting that educators have difficulty getting the work done before the end of the day, and struggle to prepare for a day off.
“The teachers take so much time in their lesson plans … so, I will say the work that they even have to do to prepare to be off is probably exhausting,” says Ashley Salas, a military spouse who subs at Fort Belvoir.
On top of having to be a jack of all trades in an elementary school classroom, rather than being able to focus on one subject area like when teaching older children, Rhoten explained that there’s more to teaching than academics.
“You’re not only worrying about the academics, there’s really a lot of social, emotional — that emotional side of the students right now is also a big one … that’s very prominent in our classrooms,” Rhoten says. Salas notes that being a school for military families can be especially affecting, as children have had to move frequently or often have parents who are deployed.
For Rhoten, she’s grateful for reliable substitutes like Salas, who works full time as a photographer. She stepped in to substitute teach at Fort Belvoir, where her children also attend, last fall. While Salas does not have the same burnout in the classroom as educators might, since she is able to pick when she is available to work at the school, she certainly feels for them.
When she first began, Salas says she was the only substitute at Fort Belvoir.
“They just needed subs all the time,” she says. When she realized how great the need was, she took to some of her online neighborhood pages to get other military spouses involved. Now, the school has a solid team of dependable subs — thanks to Salas’ recruiting.
“Having a great sub workforce is really — it’s so integral to just the smooth operations and the great instruction that we do in our schools,” Chianetta notes.
But the number of substitutes all of FCPS needs changes daily, Miller says. She explains this is based on individual leave requests.
“During non-pandemic years, our substitute teacher fill rate was around 80%. Through the pandemic, that dropped down into the 70% range, and with the most recent COVID-19 surge, we were down to about 60% fill rate,” she notes. “However, these fill rates change by the day and even by the hour. For instance, subs can choose which days and even which hours (half days) they are available to work.”
Since the pandemic hit nearly two years ago, FCPS has taken steps to lessen the requirements for substitute teaching. The FCPS substitute teacher application process usually takes about a week or two to complete, and requirements consist of a resume, a recommendation letter or two electronic references — which Miller noted were accepted in the instance that a hand-signed letter of recommendation is unobtainable during pandemic times — and proof of qualifications.
Applicants who are looking to gain a substitute teacher position must show proof of 30 college credit hours via transcript, though certain exceptions can be made depending on a candidate’s experience.
Miller noted that this 30 undergraduate credit hours of requirement was decreased from 60, describing the move as “part of an effort that helps recruit qualified college students” — some of whom earned money by substituting with FCPS during their own academic breaks.
Following the application process, applicants will go through an online onboarding process, as well as fingerprinting and a background check. The wages for substitute teaching at FCPS generally land at $17.79 an hour, varying depending on the type of and length spent teaching. These new wages are a result of the Fairfax County School Board’s October vote in to increase the pay rate for substitutes as much $3 per hour, which went into effect in November, Miller explained.
The Virginia Board of Education noted in its 2021 final report that compensation is a factor in this educator shortage, stating that discussion on education staffing challenges must include salaries. The report stated that Virginia teachers wages are less competitive when compared to similarly educated professions, earning about 30 percent less than their peers.
“As of 2019-2020, Virginia ranks 26th in average salary for K-12 public school teachers, and 26th in average salary for K-12 public school instructional staff,” the Board wrote. “According to the National Education Association’s Rankings of States 2020 report, the average teacher salary in Virginia is $57,665, while the national average is $64,133.”
Aside from salary, nationally recognized reasons for leaving teaching also include lack of administrative support, poor teaching conditions, and the pressures of accountability systems.
With the recognition that there is an issue in employing and retaining teachers — and an issue with filling their space when they’re not present — state systems and lawmakers have stepped in to help. Earlier this year, VDOE announced that it would be allocating $12 million in teacher recruitment and retention efforts, with $2 million of these funds going toward assisting “aspiring educators and other school staff to earn full state teaching licensure.”
Twenty school divisions were also eligible for grants through the Continuing Education Support grant program to assist their staff in applying for this full state licensure.
In addition to pumping money into the school system, in 2019 VDOE approved dozens of undergraduate teacher education programs at colleges and universities with the hope that it would streamline the process to become a teacher. Rather than first completing a bachelor’s degree in a subject and then a teacher preparation program, which would often require a fifth year of school, these programs would allow aspiring teachers to become educators with less required schooling.
Previously, lawmakers also offered temporary solutions to fill teaching gaps during the pandemic. In February of 2021, Virginia State Senators Chap Petersen and Siobhan Dunnavant introduced the idea of the Education Reserve Corps as a state policy — but not a bill — intended to help the staffing shortage. Similar to the Medical Reserves Corps, it would have volunteers who meet certain criteria fill in for educators. Dunnavant said that she would leave more specific details about how it would run, like if volunteers would be compensated, to the subject matter experts, such as VDOE.
Dunnavant explained that the idea was never introduced into legislation and is not in the works for this year’s session, but could still be a practical solution to fill the teacher gap depending on the future. With a new administration under Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Dunnavant says that “they have their own ideas and this may fit in with that, and they may have other ideas that fill the gap without it.” She noted that Youngkin has discussed raising teacher pay, which she calls an “important variable for recruitment and retention.”
The Henrico-based state senator has also noted that among the many educators she’s spoken to, a lot are facing some serious burnout as a result of both the teacher shortage and the adverse effects of the pandemic. Dunnavant believes that often, teachers become wrapped up in controversy between school boards and parents, and conversations had about schools get indirectly applied to educators. Salas notes that in pandemic times, teachers are getting hit left and right with differing opinions.
For both Rhoten and Salas, the focus is on the kids, not on any of the negativity which might trickle down — negativity which they know, ultimately, should not fall on either of their shoulders.
“The kids in front of me are what’s important; I’ll let the people [who want to] battle it out, battle it out. I try not to get sucked into the negativity,” Rhoten says. “Yes, things trickle down on us teachers in a different way. But I’m always first to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t good for the students, this is not best practice. Whatever the situation is, my focus is on the kids — never an adult or administrator, or superintendent, or whatever it is. I’m here as a service for children.”
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State policies and the pandemic are putting teachers in a vicious cycle of stress and burnout.