NJ Schools Were Facing a Staffing Crisis Before COVID. Now, the Challenges Are Daunting

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What if we have been looking at the staffing shortages in our schools all wrong?

No substitutes? They’ll come back after COVID-19.

No bus drivers? Adjustments to licensing requirements will increase the candidate pool.

Not enough teachers to open this week? Schools will be fine when the days of quarantining are done and the latest COVID-19 variant runs out of steam.

If only it were that simple.

The truth is that the staffing shortage in our schools is not a “this week” or “this year” problem. It is a crisis that predates the onset of COVID-19 and one that will likely carry through the next decade. For several years pre-pandemic, finding qualified, competent and certified teachers in physics, math, special education or world languages proved to be nearly impossible when preparing to open school each September. Often, a principal’s hunt to find these teachers would continue after the school year began. Stopgap measures, including reliance on long-term substitutes (when one can be found), overloading other teachers’ schedules or switching to online providers, became go-to solutions to cause as little disruption to students’ educations as possible.

Shortages are bigger than you can imagine

The shortage is no longer limited to science, math, special education and world language teachers, however. It is far bigger than substitutes and bus drivers. It now includes teachers for all age groups and almost all content areas, including those that have never been difficult to fill previously. Add to the existing list of vacancies, teachers of pre-K, English Language Learners, literacy and health/physical education. It includes other critical school roles such as counselors, instructional assistants, school psychologists and lunch/recess/hall monitors. It includes school nurses who are so overwhelmed and overburdened by contact tracing and monitoring quarantine schedules that they barely have time left for bumps, boo-boos, and band-aids. It includes assistant principals, principals and superintendents. There are more categories with shortages than without them.

Most disturbing is that the problems are many, but the solutions are few. If you also look at the colleges and universities in New Jersey and throughout the United States, there are far fewer students majoring in education. If you look at current educators, more novice teachers are changing careers entirely after just a handful of years in the classroom. More veteran teachers are retiring early and making later-in-life career shifts. A Dec. 8, 2021 survey conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals revealed the alarming statistic that “almost 4 out of 10 principals (38%) expect … to leave the profession in the next three years.”

Education is not a field for the inexperienced. Far more than textbooks, notes, quizzes and projects, education is a field in which all aspects of life come to a nexus, placing far greater responsibilities onto its leaders. Educators not only address curriculum and learning, but they are also the first line of defense for physical and mental health, interpersonal growth and extracurricular development, safety and security matters including potential life and death moments, overcoming learning issues and conquering personal challenges — in short coalescing all aspects of how pre-K to grade 12 development occurs. Where will our schools be if even our principals, on whose wisdom we rely for our children’s education and well-being, are no more seasoned than the staff members who look to them for direction?

Pitfalls and mistakes on the horizon

The most profound concern our schools may face in the coming decade is an understaffed and inexperienced educational workforce who has had neither the depth nor breadth of instructional and leadership experiences to guard against pitfalls or avoid unintentional but costly mistakes. Even now, scan the districts in a county to see how many of them are led by interim, acting or novice superintendents. Keep an eye on the employment postings to see how long those teaching positions in your neighborhood school have sat vacant for lack of qualified candidates — or any candidates. Be cognizant of how many new school leaders have only a few years in the classroom before taking charge of an entire building and how many central office administrators have never served as a principal or vice principal. Aside from parenting, the two greatest factors in the success of students is the quality of their teachers and the leadership of their principal, both of which build relationships, a sense of belonging, and a belief in one’s own possibility in school and in life.

Being a teacher, being a principal, being an educator of any kind is the hardest — and best — job. Being an educator means having the ability to make daily miracles seem commonplace and previously unimagined personal and academic achievements, all in a day’s work. All of the preparation that occurs behind the scenes, during evenings and on weekends, makes magic happen in the classroom and makes education look easy.

Every trusted adult in a school building plays a role in the lives of students. Not only do we need to recruit excellent candidates into this incredible field, but:

  • We need to retain the ones who are teetering on the brink by making sure they know they are truly valued for the difference they make in the lives of children.
  • We need to support them in their ever-expanding roles with high quality professional learning and on-the-job support
  • We need our communities to work collaboratively with our staff as partners in learning, not adversaries on issues outside school control.
  • We must ensure that we have enough dedicated adults in our schools — from bus drivers to school and district leaders — to continue the tradition of excellence we have come to expect in New Jersey.

From reevaluating certification processes to incentivizing future educators to enter the field, from rebuilding the trust and respect that educators deserve for a lifetime spent in service to children to finding ways to keep experienced educators in the schools until retirement, the time to address this crisis is now, not when the teacher and principal candidate pool has run dry. Not when our teachers’ desks are empty. Not when our principals’ offices are dark. Not when the high quality educational programs our New Jersey students deserve suffer because there is no one to run them. It takes all of us — teachers, principals, parents, legislators, and communities — to ensure that this is a priority now, because later will be too late.

Will the right leaders be in place?

Never before COVID-19 did our world fully understand the role that our neighborhood schools played in supporting a functioning society. Closing schools did not create a mere ripple effect but a series of cataclysmic impacts that affected our economy and the availability of a viable workforce, and it slowed the developmental and educational stepping stones on which our society will be rebuilt by today’s students. We have already seen during the pandemic what happens when our schools cannot function as they should. To ensure they are able to function as they must once the pandemic is finally over, our schools need to be in the most qualified and capable hands.

The critical question we all face is, will those hands be there?