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Sitting in his office in Morgantown, Monongalia County Superintendent Eddie Campbell reminisces about a problem he used to have: too many applicants.
“We posted an elementary position 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been unlikely to get 60 applicants for one elementary position.,” he said.
But things have changed. Campbell says now he’s lucky to get a third as many people applying.
“That is even exacerbated when we start talking about these critical positions. Math, high school science, foreign language, special education, we’re talking single digit applicants for these posted positions,” Campbell said. “Many times we’re getting applicants that aren’t qualified by certification, and we might only have one or two applicants for a math position.”
For the last several years, West Virginia has faced a difficult issue. The West Virginia Department of Education estimates there are currently some 1,500 vacancies in certified teacher positions in the state. Campbell says he and other educational leaders have to increasingly rely on long-term substitutes to fill in the gaps.
The issue is not unique to West Virginia. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in early 2022 that 44 percent of public schools nationally had full or part-time teaching vacancies. A variety of issues have contributed to the decline, including pay, added responsibilities and public perception of the teaching profession.
Hans Fogle, public information officer for Jefferson County Schools, said the COVID-19 pandemic amplified and accelerated issues that already existed.
“Over COVID, we saw what was ‘the great retirement’ where anyone who was eligible for retirement did so,” he said. “Part of that is because you had to adapt at a moment’s notice to an entirely new way of teaching, new way of doing school. The burnout was significant.”
The “great retirement” trend played out across the workforce, but those close to retirement are not the only ones leaving the teaching profession.
A national survey of teachers conducted by Merrimack College in 2022 found that just 12 percent of teachers are very satisfied with their jobs, with more than four in ten teachers saying they were very or fairly likely to leave the profession in the next two years.
Campbell said one thing that has changed significantly since he started working is just how much is expected of teachers.
“When I came up through the ranks, it was we’re going to teach kids to read, we’re going to teach kids to do some math, and build some relationships,” he said.
The increased responsibilities constitute what Campbell called “mission creep.” He said many of the new responsibilities such as suicide prevention, eating disorder prevention, and now security, all come with mandatory training.
“There are many, many legal requirements,” Campbell said. “I was on a call today with the state superintendent, and we were talking and discussing just the sheer number of required professional development and training that our professional educators are required to do on an annual basis. School systems are having to frontload professional development days before school even starts to train our teachers.”
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the number of requirements sends the message to educators that they aren’t trusted.
“No one wants to go into education when the legislature wants to micromanage everything that you do in the classroom,” Lee said. “No one wants to go into education, many colleges have seen dramatic decreases in the number of students that are going into education. So we have to make it attractive, both financially and with respect.”
Lee, who taught math for decades before moving to the WVEA, says no one knows students and their needs better than the teacher in front of the classroom, and those needs are increasing. That’s in part because of the state’s high opioid use and its impact on students’ families.
“Teachers are becoming the caregivers, the pat on the back or the loving person in front of those kids. A lot of times they’re the only kind words that kid gets during the day is from the educators,” he said. “You become a social worker, you become a nurse, you become just a litany of things that the family unit used to take care of and now the educators have been asked more and more to address those issues.”
Melissa Campbell, a fourth-grade teacher in Ritchie County, has been teaching for 11 years. She agreed that the job has become harder in recent years in no small part because of the mental health requirements of students.
“The children are so different now, and their lifestyles are so different,” Campbell said. “Their traumas are so different, their struggles are so different, that we’re trying to be everything they need, mentally, emotionally, physically, educationally. And to do that, it’s impossible.”
She said schools need more resources to address students’ mental health needs. Outside work, Campbell also feels the pressure of public perception. Growing up, Campbell said being a teacher commanded a certain level of respect, but these days she’s sometimes unsure whether to tell people what she does for work.
“It’s very open, whether it’s social media or the news, you’re gonna see education across the board being thrown in some way in a negative light,” Campbell said. “I think it got too hard for people because you’re taught to keep that down, to keep peace and maintain your shield. But it’s sometimes hard to try to do that.”
Campbell said she loves working with kids, but that alone is not enough to keep her or anyone else in teaching these days. What does keep her going is making sure her students have someone who cares in their life.
“Sometimes they didn’t get an education lesson from me. Some days they just got a therapist, sometimes they got a mom, some days they got a nurse, some days they got whatever, just me being that for them,” Campbell said. “Okay, if I did that, then I feel good. So I think that’s what keeps me going through 11 years now.”
The shortage is not limited to teaching positions. In the same report, the National Center for Education Statistics also reported that 49 percent of public schools report at least one non-teaching staff vacancy in 2022.
Rachel Ringler, human resource service coordinator for Jefferson County Schools, said there are shortages for almost every position. Across the state, shortages of bus drivers and technicians continue to be a concern.
“We are in desperate need of substitutes, for aides, for cooks, custodians, secretaries, general maintenance,” she said.
Pay is a factor both for teachers and staff. According to the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, West Virginia had an average teacher salary just over $50,000 in 2021, the fourth lowest in the country and $15,000 below the national average teacher salary of $65,000.
For many educators, low pay is the most visible symptom of a much larger issue: a lack of value and respect. But despite setbacks, it continues to be not only a vocation but a passion for most.
“I still think education is one of the most important, I want to call it a job, but it’s, it’s my life,” said Todd Seymour, principal at Preston High School.
For him, the issue boils down to what society prioritizes and rewards.
“With as much as we pay entertainers, and we pay teachers minimal, barely? A lot of teachers have second jobs,” Seymour said. “If you want to talk about one of the reasons they’re leaving, it’s because some of them have to get second jobs to raise a family.”
Ringler agrees that all school workers need to be recognized for the work they do.
“We’re talking a lot about a lot of negatives and not having, but I think we need to turn that in praise all the teachers, all those aides, all the bus drivers, the cafeteria ladies, who we’ve had here with us for, you know, for several years, and and honor them,” she said.
As it stands, the dwindling prestige and pay of education as a career has a knock-on effect the profession will be feeling for years, but efforts are underway to try to turn the tide in favor of the next generation of educators.
This story is part of the series, “Help Wanted: Understanding West Virginia’s Labor Force.”