We’re now in our fourth week of the school year, and we all basically agree that we want to do everything we can to help students succeed. Recover. Be safe. Catch up. Connect. Thrive. Whatever phrase you’d supply, our intentions are aligned.
But here’s the thing: “doing everything we can” requires people power, and we’re not fielding a full team.
We’re still short 65 certified employees (basically, those folks who work directly with students in schools every day and have a professional license to do so) and we’re trying to fill 74 open positions for support staff. I’ve been looking at the job postings since early August and I’ve watched the numbers fluctuate from more than 140 certified staff job openings down to about 50 last week, and now back up again to 65.
Our vacancies include (as of 9/22/21):
This is no criticism of APS—this is true basically everywhere right now. You can Google “teacher shortage 2021” and name a state and you’ll read pretty much the same story. The need is particularly acute in special education: 48 states are reporting shortages for the 2021-22 school year. And when teachers have to quarantine, there aren’t substitutes to fill in, forcing many school districts to close classrooms and revert to remote learning.
Nationally, we saw this coming: experts were writing about a looming teacher shortage years before COVID. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by more than a third in the decade leading up to the pandemic.
COVID hasn’t helped: in a national RAND survey last March, 42% of teachers reported that they had considered leaving or retiring during the 2020-21 school year. Of these, slightly more than half say it was because of COVID-related job stress. A May 2021 survey by the National Education Association yielded similar data. NEA members reported concern about their physical health and safety—with only one-third of respondents saying their schools had adequate and safe ventilation—and their mental health, with 41% of respondents reporting that they were “not sure” if their districts have any plans in place to address educator anxiety, depression and burnout.
What will we need to do in Arlington to fill vacancies and keep the staff members we have?
1. Ask them—and really listen to what they say. We don’t need to guess what will motivate teachers and other staff members to work in our schools. They’ve told us. For example, we have data from the Your Voice Matters survey (more than 3,500 staff respondents). Only 37% responded favorably to questions about their voice in decision making and opportunities for professional learning. Only half responded favorably to questions about their safety at work and the quality of home-school partnerships.
2. Make this a budget priority for FY23. As it does every year, this October the School Board will provide direction to APS leaders as they begin developing next year’s budget. I believe this issue needs to be front-and-center. For the first time in Virginia, our educators are empowered to engage in collective bargaining with their school districts. If I’m elected I know I will be on one side of this bargaining table and so I probably shouldn’t say this, but: APS, don’t mess this up. Without a great staff, all the rest is window dressing.
3. Get committed and creative when it comes to staff mental health and well-being. Educators can’t support students’ well-being if their own tank is empty. Ask staff what would help (see #1 above) and then let’s do it. In other school districts, this has meant creating helplines; establishing tap-in/tap-out practices; developing shared agreements about how staff can support each other (e.g., don’t send work-related emails over the weekend; sit with a new staff member; etc.); and more. Additional, helpful resources on this subject include this May 2021 Education Week article and a Relationship Mapping Tool from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
I’ve worked in schools and to support schools for most of my adult life. I know that education is a deeply social and human enterprise. Let’s take care of those humans we’re trusting with the education of our kids.
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