North country administrators, educators talk national teacher shortage, COVID and upcoming school year

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WATERTOWN — With COVID-19 related restrictions and regulations having been further relaxed for the start of the 2022-23 school year next week, there is much hope for finding a “new normal.” But a shortage of teachers and other staff necessary for school districts to operate properly has been affecting schools across the nation.

The north country has not been immune to the shortage, as many districts are dealing with increasingly smaller pools of applicants and often competing with one another for recruits, and there are still dozens of positions open across the region — from superintendents and principals to bus drivers and substitute teachers. The first day of school for most districts is Tuesday.

Districts in the north country have gotten creative with their responses to the shortages and have remained committed to providing their students with the many classes and programs they offer.

According to Jefferson-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent Stephen J. Todd, he and his colleagues have been talking for the last several years about how they’ve seen a small pool of available teachers and educators coming out of teacher prep programs.

“It’s not really pandemic related and what we’re seeing this year is not dramatically different from what we saw last year, the year before or the year before that, even though the overall hiring market nationwide is even tighter,” Mr. Todd said. “I hear this from my colleagues outside of education as well, what my industry friends are saying mirrors what we’re seeing that the workforce is, as we know it, just much smaller than the demand for employees right now in every field.”

He noted that it is hard to find teachers of all kinds, but especially those in specialized areas like particular sciences or foreign languages. The market is also tighter for teaching assistants, aides and substitute teachers, as well as bus drivers. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services hires teachers of particular trades and Mr. Todd said he was happy to report that they have had good success this year filling some hard-to-fill teaching positions for electrical wiring and heavy equipment classes.

He also helps out when districts need help finding high-level administrators like superintendents, and is currently assisting with searches for superintendents for the Watertown City School District and General Brown Central School District. He noted that superintendent searches used to bring in around 25 to 30 applicants, and this was true statewide. Then it became 15, then 10. And then it became single digits.

“That’s true, I think, across the labor market, but there are still good people out there, we’re still hiring excellent people,” Mr. Todd said.

COVID-19 led teachers to modify their approaches to teaching, become adept at virtual learning and collaboration, use new technology, narrow curricula to the essentials, and assess students in different ways in order to continue to offer students meaningful learning experiences. They overcame this unprecedented time by doing what they do best: supporting, encouraging and educating.

Even before the pandemic, teachers were leaving their positions or the profession entirely for various reasons, including low pay and a lack of societal support.

“When we first shut down, people really realized how much teachers do and were thankful, but that was very short lived,” said Nadine C. Britton, living environment teacher at Sackets Harbor Central School. “I think that the general public has a difficult time understanding what a teacher’s day really looks like and without that vision, our job is thought to be extremely easy. I think that due to all of that, the lack of support that teachers feel is why we have a shortage right now.”

Mrs. Britton, who is now in her 23rd year of teaching and second with the district, noted that it needs to be understood that teachers are educated people with advanced degrees who have families and bills, and that a living wage and general support are the only way the teaching profession will become marketable again.

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