Virginia’s Running Out of Teachers. It’s Not Just Because of the Pandemic.

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

November 28, 2020

Teachers are leaving the profession for a number of reasons. That creates challenges for some schools.

BLACKSBURG – It’s a rare gift to find your passion in life. For many teachers across Virginia, however, following their dream quickly turned into a nightmare. Virginia faces a persistent teacher shortage, hovering at around 1,000 unfilled positions each year. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Myriad challenges are forcing teachers out of the industry.

Tough Conditions Contribute to Shortage

Kate Cassada was a teacher and administrator in Hanover County Public Schools for nearly 15 years before joining the University of Richmond faculty. She now chairs the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. She’s watched her students, many of whom are current Virginia teachers, navigate the transition to distance learning amid the pandemic. 

“The teachers are rocking it; what I see is incredible,” Cassada said during a recent phone call. 

One positive outcome of the pandemic, she said, is parents’ increased understanding of how hard teachers work. “Parents are seeing everything teachers are doing, and they’re recognizing the skill and the dedication there. They’re getting a lot of compliments and praise and support,” Cassada said.

But this isn’t the norm. Teachers are driven by passion and have a heart for helping kids. But this often motivates society to take advantage of teachers and fail to compensate them fairly. 

“You have to have a calling to teach,” Cassada said. “People believe that means you should be doing it no matter what the working circumstances are…and I have a problem with that.”

Cassada said the expectation that public schools be one-stop shops for all of children’s needs contributes to poor working conditions.

After the pandemic reached Virginia in March, for instance, schools immediately made feeding children their top priority. “And yes, we need to have children fed, but societally we ask schools to do so much. The increasing pressure on teachers to meet the multitude of needs of children is really stressful,” Cassada said. 

This stress is compounded by the fact that teachers receive exceptionally low pay. 

Virginia is the 12th wealthiest state in the U.S. but ranks 32nd in teacher pay, according to the Virginia Education Association. In 2019, the Education Law Center gave Virginia “D” grades for both its funding level and funding effort in public schools.

Do More, With Less 

Margaret Thornton, who taught English in Charlottesville City Schools prior to becoming a PhD student in educational leadership at the University of Virginia, said teacher shortages limit schools’ capacity to improve and can exacerbate inequality. 

Thornton’s graduate work is focused on the concept of school detracking. The idea is that tracking students into either advanced or grade-level classes perpetuates inequity because students of color, immigrants and poor students are much less likely to be selected for more rigorous tracks. 

Thornton was implementing detracking in her public school system before she left for graduate school. “Leadership needed more support—they needed more teachers, and more schools to implement the program well,” she said. Successful detracking necessitates smaller class sizes. “With smaller class sizes, you can tailor your instruction to different students’ needs,” Thornton explained, but the persistent teacher shortage in Virginia makes this difficult to achieve. 

Thornton fears that such problems will be magnified during the pandemic. Some teachers, she said, are resigning because they feel unsafe instructing in-person. The challenging conditions may also be scaring off potential applicants. 

If schools face a scarcity of qualified applicants, teachers with less experience will end up in classrooms. “Teacher experience can impact student outcomes,” Thornton said, with Black, brown and low-income students often having the least-experienced teachers.

While teachers are already stretched thin, they are simultaneously being asked to fill more roles. Teachers are not only educators, as Cassada said. They are food distributors, healthcare providers and counselors. Providing mental health support to students is difficult even under the most favorable circumstances. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, doing so has become a more urgent need that teachers have less capacity to address.

While teaching, Thornton saw that students across the spectrum faced mental health struggles, which were often rooted in uncertainty. Worries ran the gamut from “Where am I going to go to college?” to “Where is my next meal coming from?” 

And teachers are facing their own uncertainty right now: Are their jobs safe? Are they going to stay healthy if they go to work?

Distance learning is making it more difficult for teachers to support their students, Thornton said. Most teachers are not in the room with students. And even those who are must maintain physical distance and try to limit infection risk. Thornton visits schools as part of her graduate work. Right now, she said, “Schools are silent. Kids aren’t really talking because they don’t want to breathe on each other. It’s really eerie.” 

Enduring Commitment and Solutions

The situation is far from hopeless, though. Cassada and Thornton both have faith that the dedication of teachers will endure. Moving forward, schools can provide more funding, mental health resources and creative top-down leadership to improve conditions.

The National Center for Rural School Mental Health wants to be part of the solution. 

The center is developing a universal screening tool for various indicators of mental health or behavioral issues. Amanda Nguyen, who is part of the project team, said tools that all students can use are particularly valuable in rural districts.

“Particularly in schools with resource constraints, teachers are asked to take on a lot of additional roles that they may not necessarily have been trained in,” Nguyen said.

The screening tool can help teachers find students who need help, and then connect those students with a network of support. Nguyen is currently conducting a survey of teachers to gauge the impact of COVID-19 on rural school mental health. 

Teacher advocates reiterate the importance of increased funding. But it may prove even more difficult to obtain following massive budget shortfalls due to the pandemic. 

In the meantime, Cassada said, adjusting our expectations of teachers can improve their work environment. 

Some teachers feel they have limited freedom given stringent standards, pacing charts and mandatory testing, she explained.  “Teachers are not being able to use their professional expertise and judgement, and not feeling confident to do that,” Cassada said. “Leadership can change this. In some buildings they do, and they’re a little less risk-averse.” Empowering teachers makes them feel better about their job, despite its challenges. 

“We have teachers doing incredible, remarkable work. I’m just totally blown away by what they’re doing,” she said. Then she added, “We need more of them.”

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