Wanted: More teachers to fill growing classroom shortages

Maylin Castillo listens during a class for students who want to become teachers at Miami Dade College earlier this month. There is a national teach shortage.
Maylin Castillo listens during a class for students who want to become teachers at Miami Dade College earlier this month. There is a national teach shortage.

Kayla SanMartin comes from a family of teachers and imagined she would choose the same career. But in college, she came very close to dropping out of her education program.

“Most of the teachers that I did my field experience with would tell me to leave. They would tell me, ‘Look, you can do so much more, you can go into a different field, are you sure this is where you want to be?’” SanMartin recalled. “They would kind of discourage me in a way.”

Now a first-year teacher at a Miami charter school, SanMartin is happy she stuck with education — not least of all because it was easy for her to find a job. When she graduated from Florida International University in May, principals were scrambling to fill teaching spots for the coming school year.

It’s a conundrum across the country, and one that is being felt in South Florida: school districts are desperate to fill teaching vacancies, but fewer and fewer young people are going into the profession. Compounded with high rates of teacher burnout nationwide, the United States is facing a widespread teacher shortage.

In Miami-Dade, the school district started the year with roughly 150 vacancies — 40 in special education, 55 in math, reading and science, and another 55 spread out across other specializations. By national standards, Miami-Dade isn’t grappling with an official shortage, but the national trend is something school administrators are concerned about, and something they have taken steps to address.

This year Miami-Dade expanded its teacher recruitment team, hosted hiring fairs earlier in the year and offered advance contracts to get promising applicants to commit to teaching in the county before they had even graduated from college. For the first time, the district also negotiated a contract with the local union, United Teachers of Dade, before the start of the school year.

“It’s something we need to keep an eye on,” Jose Dotres, the district’s head of human capital, said of the national teacher shortage. “We have a team of folks at the district constantly speaking about that, about bringing talented teachers into the school district. It’s something that will be taking center stage for several years to come.”

On a national level, there are a number of factors that influence how acutely different cities and states experience the teacher shortage. Salaries compared to the local cost of living, variations in working conditions, and mentoring programs to support new teachers all impact how easy it is for school districts to attract and retain new teachers, said Leib Sutcher, a research associate at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit that studies education policy.

The shortages also vary by subject area, with special education, math and science teachers the hardest to come by in many places.

What is uniform across the board, though, is that teacher shortages have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students.

“When there aren’t enough teachers to go around, the schools with fewest resources — and as a result the least desirable working conditions — are the ones left with the vacancies,” Sutcher said.

In the scramble to fill empty spots, some school districts have hired applicants who are not fully credentialed teachers or who are not certified to teach a particular subject. “What we saw is that in many of those states, students in the highest poverty, highest minority settings had more of these under-qualified teachers,” Sutcher said.

It was almost like a little bit of a perfect storm between retirement and having less teachers available in the market.

Jose Dotres, head of human capital at Miami-Dade public schools

In Miami-Dade, administrators say that is not happening. But the district has temporarily deployed curriculum specialists, reading coaches and others who were trained as teachers but don’t normally lead classrooms, to fill the empty spots while schools look for more full-time teachers, Dotres said.

The situation could have been much worse. In addition to the factors affecting school districts nationwide, Miami-Dade has also seen a large number of teachers retire in recent years because of state-level changes in the retirement program for public employees that prompted older teachers to leave the workforce by June 2016.

“It was almost like a little bit of a perfect storm between retirement and having less teachers available in the market,” Dotres said.

To avoid future problems, Miami-Dade is looking beyond the current school year. The district is promoting teaching programs for high school students to get them interested in the profession early on, and expanding mentorship programs for new teachers to make sure they don’t leave the profession during the first, and often most challenging, years of their careers.

Even with the district’s proactive measures, local teacher colleges say they can’t fill the demand quickly enough.

“Last year they had a hiring fair at our campus and the principals were very irate because we didn’t have enough graduates for them to hire,” said Susan Neimand, the director of Miami Dade College’s School of Education, which sends roughly 80 percent of its graduates to Miami-Dade public schools.

FIU graduate SanMartin, who teaches fifth-graders in Hialeah, was hired at the first school she interviewed at, and said her classmates from FIU’s school of education have had a similar experience. “It was a very short hiring process,” she said.

It hasn’t always been easy to find work as an educator. There was a time not too long ago when new teachers had to substitute teach because there were no full-time openings, and veterans were getting laid off as districts slashed their budgets to cope with the recession. SanMartin’s mother graduated from FIU’s education program eight years ago and ended up working at a school that was on the brink of closing because there was nothing else available.

But fewer students going into education now means there is less competition for teaching spots. Like teacher colleges across the country, Miami Dade College and FIU have seen drops in enrollment over the past two to three years. Enrollment in FIU’s undergraduate education programs fell from about 1,300 students in 2013 to 1,161 in 2015. Similarly, Miami Dade College admitted 219 aspiring teachers in 2015 compared to close to 300 the year before.

It’s hard to attract and retain qualified teachers when you have such an attack on the profession.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade union

“We definitely are feeling a sense of individuals not wanting to be teachers anymore,” said Laura Dinehart, the interim director of FIU’s school of education. “We have students who have told us that they come from families where people are teachers and that that’s not something they want to pursue. We’re trying to change their minds about that and give them a different perspective on teaching. We see teaching as sort of a calling and a service to society.”

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade union, said the scapegoating of teachers for a host of societal problems has made the profession less attractive to young people. “We have a lot of rhetoric out there specifically with politicians playing this blame game,” she said. “It’s hard to attract and retain qualified teachers when you have such an attack on the profession.”

Low pay, unpopular teacher accountability measures — like tying pay to student performance — and an emphasis on standardized testing are all factors college students, teachers and education program directors cited as deterrents for would-be educators and as contributors to teacher burnout.

Jake Verdin has taught at both public and charter schools in Miami and has seen a lot of teacher turnover. “I think that a lot of it has to do with finances, but I think also a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s a really tough job,” he said. “It’s a field that if you’re not in it for the right reasons, they definitely weed you out pretty quickly.”

Natasha Blanch was studying math at FIU and planned to major in finance until she realized that it wasn’t a career path she found fulfilling. At the end of her sophomore year, she joined an FIU teaching program aimed at science and math majors who want to graduate with a teaching certificate.

Blanch was initially concerned about choosing a low paying career, but quickly realized that she had found her calling.

“For all of those important jobs that are higher paid ... well, you can’t get there without your teacher. I think that’s something that’s forgotten by all of us except for teachers,” she said. “We know our job is important.”