Teacher shortages a challenge for BPS, other schools as classes begin

New teachers and veteran teachers gathered at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School last Friday for training and preparation for the start of school on Sept. 8. Photo courtesy Mildred K-8

As the pandemic continues to affect life across the country, educators are grappling with widespread burnout as teachers are leaving their profession in numbers larger than normal. Locally, the problem has presented itself at every type of school in Dorchester – from parochial to charter to public schools – with administrators scrambling to find teachers at the start of the school term in the wake of an above-average outflow last year.

Drew Echelson, the interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools system, said late last week that BPS still had around 220 vacancies to fill before the first day of school this week (Sept. 8.) However, he said, he was confident they would be ready.

“We’ve done a very thorough analysis of these vacancies to really understand where the vacancies are and how we can be creative and innovative and succeed in the moment,” he told the Reporter. “I do feel pretty strongly we are in a strong place and our schools will be staffed for our first day of school.”

He added, “We did a very thoughtful analysis to identify patterns of vacancies to ensure any school with higher numbers of vacancies has supports in place to help them. Off the top of my head, I don’t think any of those were in Dorchester or Mattapan. Most are at the middle school and high school levels and mostly in content specific areas like chemistry and physics. Not general education, but content-specific teachers.”

Jessica Tang, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, said last month that there were about 1,000 vacancies across BPS, and that some 200 or so were teaching positions. She said there is a stress on the system for filling existing vacancies along with filling large amounts of new positions created to deal with the continuing effect of Covid-19.

“There is definitely an uptick in the number of vacancies right now going into the school year…but comparatively to the rest of the nation and the national teacher shortages we’re looking at, it’s a relatively smaller number,” she said. “And it’s not just of people leaving the profession the last couple of years during the pandemic, because that is real. There have been additional stresses, there’s been a social, emotional, and mental toll on everybody. There’s been a lot of disrespect to educators and our profession. And that has had an impact.”

As a result of BPS scrambling to fill teaching vacancies, the situation has created havoc in Catholic schools in and around Boston.

St. Brendan’s School, located on Rita Road in Dorchester, started classes last Wednesday. Principal Maura Burke said they had a tough time finding teachers to fill vacancies, but mostly because they’re losing their personnel to BPS.

“It’s two-fold for us,” Burke said. “There are so many positions open in the public schools now that Catholic school teachers can get, and they will earn, on average, $25,000 more per year, and significantly more in Boston. It’s a very tough time for Catholic school principals because they have a teacher they have counted on and they leave for a public-school job…You just can’t compete against that.”

Despite that issue, Burke said, St. Brendan’s relied on an informal principal network and was able to fill openings in time for the start of classes. “We are looking very hard and looking out for each other,” she said. “If it weren’t for that, I was going to have a 6th grade vacancy…I have two or three people I could call in if I had to. I didn’t have to do that because in mid-August we were able to find the teachers we needed. As of the start of school, we are in great shape.”

Charter schools like the Edward Brooke on American Legion Highway in Mattapan upped their salary structures to be more competitive last year, so losing teachers to BPS isn’t as big an issue. For that school, which started on Aug. 18, it was simply “burnout” and higher turnover.

Brooke co-director Jon Clark said the teacher-retention rate went from the normal 80 percent number down to 70 percent, but at the same time, fewer applicants were applying for open positions.

“Finding teachers was definitely harder this year both because there are fewer candidates applying and also because we had more turnover than we have in a typical year,” he said. “Last year was a really hard year in education. The hardest I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been doing this a long time. No one wants to go to remote again, and it was hard last year to keep up with the impacts our students and staff experienced day to day…I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibilities that some of that spurred some people…to change things up.”

The idea of a 10 percent decrease in retention may seem small, but Clark said it is a huge swing for a school to cover. At the same time, it also depends on which subjects have classroom vacancies as it can be harder to fill a high school science position than one for an elementary classroom teacher.

“It doesn’t have to be swings of 25 percent to be felt by the school; even smaller swings of 5 percent can mean larger class sizes,” he said. “It’s not just a question of putting bodies before the classroom…We need to get people in the door and develop them and keep them here.”

To attack the problem at BPS in short order, Rae Catchings, BPS’s director of human capital, said they have come up with a three-part strategy.

First, they put out the word in August to recently retired science educators, offering them an incentive to come out of retirement to fill openings, either in the short-term or for the long-term. Second, they are looking at folks in the BPS central office who might be certified to teach in areas of high need like math and science and deploying them into the classroom. Finally, they are reaching out to colleges and universities for graduate students who could be qualified and willing to fill teaching positions.

“Those in the teaching pipeline, we’re talking about getting them into the classroom and get them experience as they work toward their degree,” said Catchings.

Meanwhile, she said there is good news on the substitute teaching pool, which was a major struggle last year. Many teachers were gone due to Covid protocols, or for routine things like maternity leaves or medical leaves. It became difficult to replace those teachers last year, but Catchings said they are seeing good progress in getting a fine pool of subs to pick up that slack.

“We have a strong substitute pool where we have started to use those who are on the cusp of becoming real teachers and getting them started on being a teacher while they are in the pipeline,” she said. “That’s one way we’ve beefed up our outreach for both regular positions and substitute positions.”

Tang said she was very optimistic about the start of school, but she warned of a “vicious cycle” that could emerge. “We don’t want to be in a vicious cycle where if you lose a lot of educators, it burdens the educators who are there even more, which then burns them out, which then pushes them out of the profession, too,” she said. “We cannot let that happen.”

Gintautas Dumcius contributed to this report.


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