Being a teacher has always been a respected profession.
Students looked up to them and parents depended on the guidance and knowledge educators could impart on their children. After all, their future depended on it.
But in recent years, something shifted. The profession, and education in general, fell under more scrutiny. Legislators demanded better test scores and more accountability. A shift from the chalkboard to laptops pushed schools along at a rapid pace to keep up with technology, but not spend more.
Taxpayers blamed teachers for their high salaries and benefits. After all, they grumbled, teachers get summers off. The 2011 Act 10 legislation hobbled public sector employee collective bargaining, weakening teacher’s unions and requiring teachers pay more for benefits. Morale plummeted.
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The collective result is a critical shortage of teachers that has left many school districts struggling to fill positions — even after the Sept. 1 start of school. The shrinking teacher pool is serious enough to have prompted State Superintendent Tony Evers to take emergency measures. Experts are being gathered to come up with innovative ways to reverse the new trend.
“The educator workforce shortage is one of the most critical public policy issues facing our state,” Evers said.
The North Fond du Lac School District is still searching for a middle-school math teacher. It’s one of the harder teaching positions to fill, along with science, special education and technology/consumer education.
Math majors, for example, have more earning potential pursuing other avenues in the private sector (think accounting), Superintendent Aaron Sadoff said.
“We need to change the dialogue, instead of pushing all this blame on why there are financial and other issues in education. We need to change the rhetoric of how we view public service, because people are leaving here for better opportunities,” Sadoff said.
Lori Miron, director of human resources for the Oshkosh Area School District, echoes that sentiment. The district had to fill more than 120 teaching positions this summer. Reasons vary from retirements to employees leaving for school districts closer to home or have larger budgets.
The week prior to school opening, 11 teaching positions in Oshkosh still needed to be filled. One teacher resigned the day before the start of school. Substitute teachers, often retired teachers, are utilized until positions are filled.
“The number of college graduates in the field of education is down significantly,” Miron said. “In May, there were 31 tech ed positions open across the state and my understanding was that there were only six graduates. Supply and demand isn’t matching up.”
Many college students are graduating with extensive student loans, Miron said, and starting salary for most new teachers runs between $37,000 and $40,000.
Fond du Lac schools had two positions remaining open the day before school started. The district filled 47 teaching positions and 43 teachers left the school district, said Human Resources Director Sharon Simon.
“In past years we received 200 to 300 applicants for an elementary school position. This year the highest we had was 60 applicants. This is a great job and a great career, but teachers want to feel valued. Somehow, there has to be more encouragement (to become teachers),” Simon said.
Sheboygan filled 52 teaching positions for the 2016-17 school year from the dwindling applicant pool, said Assistant Human Resources Director Andrea Holschbach. Teachers are more mobile since Act 10 as they no longer tied to a district by benefits received through seniority. Moving from one district to the next has become much more common place.
New emergency administrative rules put in place by Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will allow retired teachers or those reaching retirement to apply for non-renewable five-year licenses. The rules also increase the number of days short-term substitutes can be in the same classroom from 20 to 45, expand criteria for renewal of emergency licenses and allow teachers to earn additional licenses through content tests.
Miron believes lower interest rates for student loans along with educational reimbursement programs (like the private sector) would attract more teachers. The license renewal process is cumbersome and costly.
“Teachers work hard. They have to deal with behavioral and health issues in students, which is challenging. Resources have been cut and are very limited. Teachers spend countless hours at night and on weekends to do what it takes to help students succeed, and there is just no more to give,” Miron said. "Thankfully the profession is very rewarding as teachers make lifelong impacts in students lives."
More of the public should see what’s happening inside Fond du Lac public schools, Simon said. Kids still come to school excited and eager to learn. Kids still love their teachers.
Sadoff said the news isn’t all doom and gloom for the teaching profession. New initiatives are being brainstormed that move away from being reactive to developing ways to improve education and create a better future.
“Happy employees and happy students are 30 percent more productive,” Sadoff said. “Being a teacher is tough, and we need to attract the best and brightest to work with our kids.”
Reach Sharon Roznik at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-907-7936; on Twitter: @sharonroznik.