Commentary

Sanity, respect cost nothing

January 8, 2024 3:00 am

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From the office of We’re-Once-Again-Defining-the-Problem-but-Still Remain-Without-a-Solution comes this: 900.

That’s the number of Nebraska classrooms missing certified and qualified teachers. according to a recent Nebraska Department of Education survey. Last year the number was 760. The vacancies stretch across grade levels and content areas in districts decidedly rural, obviously metro and everything in between. The number means each day thousands of Nebraska schoolchildren are denied the benefits of qualified and certified educators teaching in their content area for at least part of the day.

Not that comparisons solve problems or should be balm for what ails any field or industry unable to fill vacancies, but Nebraska is not alone. Most states have serious shortages of classroom teachers. 

Plus, a number of reports add some curious trends in the field. For example, according to researchers, to the problem of supply and demand, teacher shortages have to consider alignment, with content areas such as math, science and special education openings particularly difficult to fill. As you might have guessed, ZIP codes make a difference, too, with high poverty areas most in need. While the cost of a college education continues to rise, fewer college students are studying to be teachers, for a variety of reasons, surely not the least of which is because starting pay rates pale in comparison to other majors, and pay ranges vary wildly from state to state.

All of which means school districts face empty positions often with no qualified applicants or worse: no applicants at all. Plus, recruitment and retention strategies to fill classrooms and keep those already there from leaving have failed to stem the tide of vacancies. Those include mentoring from veteran teachers, “signing bonuses,” tuition reimbursements for graduate school and dual certification programs and changing the certification requirements to get bodies into classrooms, the latter of which, obviously, is controversial. 

Throw into the mix the case made by a large number of studies including one from the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES reported nearly 90% of public school districts said poor student behavior and outbursts — some violent — are on the rise, adding to the pressures and stresses a classroom teacher deals with daily. To compound matters, when subs are not available, some districts are left with no choice but to require staff to cover classes outside their content area and in addition to their own teaching load.

Nor are school districts and educators alone in the labor shortage universe. A number of industries are suffering from too many vacancies. Nurses, construction workers, manufacturing staff, airplane mechanics, school bus drivers and air traffic controllers, all critical cogs in what has become an expanding economy, are in short supply on the job and in the application process.

The why of all these vacancies is complex, touching everything from workers wanting better pay and more work schedule flexibility to early retirements and nest eggs that are giving workers a cushion on which they can wait to decide when and where re-entering the labor market best fits.

That said, teachers and those in the medical field share a recent history that correlates to vacancies in both professions: Lack of respect. 

Nurses and doctors went from being front-line heroes when the pandemic swept across the nation to the targets of attacks and vitriol by patients and the public angry over medical protocols such as masks and vaccinations, both of which clearly kept the blight of COVID from doing even greater damage. Instead, too many turned over their health and epidemiological information to podcasters, radio talk show hosts, social media and politicians practicing some sort of agenda-driven medicine.

For teachers, hailed as everyday miracle workers during lockdowns for trying to keep some semblance of educational meaning afloat via Zoom, the loss of respect and esteem tears at the very essence of teaching. 

Teachers have been muzzled, lest they offend. Some of the books they taught have been banned. Then, in an utterly despicable display from a number of patrons and politicians without evidence or cause, teachers have been accused of being groomers and pedophiles. School board meetings have erupted into shouting matches with physical threats and doses of the most eye-rolling wing-nuttery disinformation around.

Imagine your profession under such attack: New laws curtailing what you can say. Limits on the materials you can use. And, individually, being accused of being a criminal for doing your job. Now go out and recruit the best and brightest.

Teacher shortages require multi-pronged approaches … and money. Let’s start with something cost-free: sanity and respect. 

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.

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