Area schools battle employee turnover

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Virginia public schools and those locally are fighting to fill vacant teaching positions and retain the ones already there.

There were more than 2,500 vacant full-time equivalent teaching positions statewide for the 2021- 2022 school year, according to Staffing and Vacancy Report statistics collected by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

Schools are having issues retaining teachers due to salary and teaching environments, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The Department of Education is required to annually report to the General Assembly on the critical teaching shortage areas in the state per the Appropriation Act. The 2021-2022 school year report shows special education, elementary education pre-K-6 and middle education grades 6-8 were the top three critical shortage teaching endorsement areas in Virginia.

Cumberland County Schools Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dr. Elizabeth Jamerson says one sees repercussions when a school district can’t retain teachers. When officials invest time and training into teachers and they are unable to be retained, schools have to start over. Schools are often hiring teachers fresh out of college, while experienced teachers have learned all the tricks of the trade and have better results than someone just starting, Jamerson said.

VDOE also is increasing its requirements for teachers to get a license and keep their licenses, creating another problem for teacher retention, according to Jamerson. One recent qualification requirement that has been added to the list is cultural competency.

Buckingham County High School English teacher and department chair Michelle Wright says she’s seen a definite decline in the number of applicants for the positions available over the past few years. Buckingham had two high school teachers leave and only one position has been filled, Wright said. Both Wright and Jamerson noted that teachers from Buckingham and Cumberland schools have been asked to cover other classes as a result of the teacher shortage.

Wright believes teacher retention is a complex problem. Increases in salary and teacher support are two ways to combat the issue.

“If people could really learn what teachers do and if there is a problem, if we are doing something we shouldn’t do, if we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings or if we insult [someone], whatever happens, talk to the teacher first,” Wright said.

Cumberland County Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones said there is a teacher shortage across all grades, but is most seen in special education, career technical education, some sciences and higher math classes.

“I think when you don’t have the most qualified teacher in front of students on a daily basis, there is an impact,” Jones said.

The teacher shortage and increasing teacher retention is everyone’s issue.

“We as teachers need to speak up and say what we need, administrators need to listen, school boards need to listen and act, community members need to show support and want people to stay,” said Wright. “I see it as a systemic issue with a lot of voices and a lot of actions from various people needing to be taken.”

Wright believes every district should have a written retention plan and a retention committee made up of administrators, teachers, students and community members.

“We need to use research to see what’s going on,” said Wright. “We need to listen to what people who are leaving say, having exit interviews with them saying, ‘Hey, was there something we could have done to help you to stay?’ Those sorts of things I think would be really helpful.”

Cumberland County advertised teaching positions through iHeart Radio during the month of June. Jones is unsure whether the rise in applications is due to the listing.

“The good thing about that is it does get the name of Cumberland County Public Schools out to an audience that may not be as familiar with the school division,” said Jones.

The county school district also attends job fairs, posts advertisements on social media and works with colleges in the region, such as Longwood University, to increase applications.

“As the superintendent of Cumberland County Public Schools I always advocate for competitive pay,” said Jones.

Jones also works with educators, school board, legislators, Virginia General Assembly and business leaders “to help everyone understand that economic development in an area is dependent on education just like education is dependent on economic development,” he said.

For the 2022-2023 school year, there was a 6% salary increase to make Cumberland County’s pay competitive with neighboring counties, according to Jones. The county also offers small class sizes and leadership opportunities for teachers, and partners with other local institutions of education to help incentivize teachers to get a higher education.

Prince Edward County Public Schools did not respond to requests for an interview.