Many of our earliest memories are made through schooling. Memories come from the teachers we have had, the friends we make and the material we learn. Nothing could be more pivotal to one’s public education – and ultimately their ability to learn – than the teacher.
Unfortunately, the state of California is undergoing a severe teacher shortage that is affecting countless teachers, families, and students. Here we will discuss how this shortage has been affecting different local schools – mainly Benicia High and Dan Mini in Vallejo – and using the circumstances in these schools to help paint a picture of the dire situation many of our public schools are undergoing as a whole.
“Last year, one of our spanish classes was taught by Rosetta Stone for the entire year.”
This is what Kim Thompson, a teacher for both Advanced Placement Literature and Language Composition offered as one example of how California’s teacher shortage has been affecting Benicia High. The administration had a P.E. teacher sitting in to supervise the students for that class in particular.
“The parents were not happy,” she said.
Of course, this raises questions as to whether these students were adequately prepared for Spanish 2 this coming year. Only time will tell as the year has just started. Thompson went on to explain to me that the vacant Spanish teacher’s position was created when one Spanish teacher left for a wealthier district over the summer.
“We are losing good teachers to other districts like Palo Alto, Fairfield, and Walnut Creek that can actually afford to pay their teachers more and give them better benefits,” she said.
For the 2017 – 18 school year, Benicia High brought on some seven brand new, first year teachers to fill vacant slots. Seasoned teachers like Thompson must teach and grade work for their five classes – five AP classes in Thompson’s case. Grading is often done at home, off the clock. On top of these tasks, many veteran teachers have to attend conferences to keep up on the latest teaching techniques and the curriculum they follow. In addition to these things, teachers like Thompson have been assigned mentorship positions to guide these first year teachers, often committing to one or two meetings per week. Nineteen teachers had to work 120 percent last year, teaching or supervising six periods a day over the normal five. The school faces a conundrum, draw more unpaid time away from it’s most experienced teachers or risk losing their new hires?
Statistics put out by the California Teacher’s Association show that nearly one in three teachers leave the profession within their first seven years on average, 13 percent of which will leave by the end of their second year.
“When I started, other teachers had a running bet on when I’d leave, some of which guessed I would be gone by the end of the semester,” robotics and computer science teacher Andreas Kaier said.
This bet was made when he started teaching back in 2014. He was hired after the school laid off an auto teacher, leaving a wide open space for another class in a trade.
“It is incredibly hard to find teachers who hold skills in tech, auto, or other trades because of how much higher paying work their is elsewhere within these fields,” he said.
Kaiser is correct. According to the Learning Policy Institute, the pipeline for math and science teachers who are prepared and qualified in their field is shrinking. Over the next 10 years, some 33,000 are expected to be in demand – which we cannot meet at our current rates. Between 2015-16, there were 4,000 emergency permits called short-term staff permits issued. That is five times the amount issued in 2012-13, 1,700 of those for teaching special education classes and 450 in math and science.* Kaiser proposed incentivizing teacher hiring through the creation of a good, stable, efficient work environment or something like a four-day work week that could allow both students and teachers more time to get their work done thoroughly.
He finished by stating, “Above all else, these new teachers are often unprepared for the work environments they are entering. They need good mentors. That’s why I am still teaching at Benicia High.”
As the new school year has just begun, concerns over the teachers union’s coming negotiations with the Benicia Unified School District is already creeping up.
“As of now our benefits do not fully cover medical insurance,” AP European and US History teacher Edward Coyne said. “My son and I had to downgrade to Kaiser low, and I still have to pay 1000 dollars out of pocket every month.”
Coyne was not the only teacher to share this predicament with me. Teachers will likely have to pay more out of pocket annually for insurance if nothing is done. These extended, borderline hostile negotiations will certainly have the backdrop of a school in need of some assistance.
Over in Dan Mini Elementary in Vallejo, one can find another school in need of help. I interviewed Jane Sexton, a veteran teacher of third graders with well over 20 years of experience under her belt.
“The teachers really pull together…when there is a teacher absent, that class has its students parcelled out to other classes for the day because we cannot find substitute teachers,” she said. This parcelling is not entirely bad according to Sexton. The young students are divided and often put into a classroom one grade higher, where the curriculum is changed to be more inclusive of the younger kids for the day. Many see it as an adventure.
However, this is still a frightening process for a fair amount of students. Dan Mini does have a designated sub who was brought on last year who is now teaching a class full time on their own as the school is down two teachers. Sexton recounted a time one colleague was denied leave for a pre-op for a knee surgery because the school was so short staffed. A normal 3rd grade class is supposed to have 24 children to one teacher. Sexton has 35 students in her class. She has even had to teach a class of combined 3rd and 4th graders in the past. When inquired about the state of her school, she expressed that the teachers do remain optimistic. She continued, “Teaching is the ultimate act of civil justice that can level the playing field, to help enfranchise the disenfranchised.” While it is hard to argue with an idea like this, it is hard for one to wonder how level that playing field could be just a couple of years down the road when considering where better teachers often end up. According to the Learning Policy Institute’s fall 2016 survey, these shortages do dramatically and disproportionately affect lower income and minority students. Those same teachers given emergency credentials are twice as likely to teach in lower income schools over high income schools, they are also three times more likely to teach in schools with more minorities.
Sexton went on to explain that it is not only the low wages, long hours and often hig- stress work environment that drives many new teachers away.
“Politicians constantly put blame on teachers for the state of our education system,” she said. “Their only solution is to put more barricades to pass before being able to teach.”
It is certainly the case that it takes much more to become a full fledged teacher with credentials than it used to. One now must complete prerequisite classes at a university, get their bachelors, complete an entire state-approved program, pass a large exam, and submit a described “tedious” application for their credentials. The latter two steps may be repeated multiple times depending on the individual. Int total the process can often take anywhere from five and a half to six years in total. Countless other professions take just as much or less time to enter with higher starting pay.
With housing prices on the rise, a starting teacher’s salary simply will not cover many living options in different areas with good schools. With a lack of benefits, a desk piled with papers waiting to be graded, and classrooms often filled to the brim these teachers still stand ready to try and level that playing field for students every day, we should all start considering how to do our parts as well.
Benjamin Miramontes is a 2016 Benicia High School graduate and current student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.