According to MOREAP, which provides services to the state’s public schools, Missouri has nearly 1,200 K-12 public school teacher job openings. Members of a statewide commission hope to find ways to help close that gap. They will roll up their sleeves and get to work this Friday to find ways to boost Missouri’s educator workforce.
The state has roughly 70,000 pre-K through 12 public school teachers educating about 900,000 students. There has been a 25% decline in Missouri K-12 teachers over the last six years. The fallout of the pandemic and the nation’s workforce problems is not helping.
Missourinet talked to a couple teachers involved in work groups tied to the commission. Melissa Grandel, a high school English teacher at the Fordland R-3 School District in southwest Missouri and Albert Sanders, a pre-K teacher in St. Louis. Grandel is the 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year. Sanders is a Missouri Teacher of the Year finalist.
Grandel has been a teacher for nearly 28 years and Sanders has been in the classroom for 23 years.
“My favorite thing about teaching is 100% the kids and getting to spend time with them and just knowing that I’m helping them as they get ready to jump into life,” said Grandel.
“I think I set the table if students enjoy school or not, or enjoy their school life and their school process. So, I think my favorite part is when students want to come to school and they hate even when we have snow days,” he said.
Sanders said a teacher shortage is not a new problem at his district.
“Especially St. Louis Public Schools, every year we usually have a teacher shortage. So, it was even exacerbated with the numbers now. We are used to having permanent subs in classrooms – we are used to having no subs to come into the classroom if you’re absent, we just double up on classes. And it was really hard during the pandemic. Overall, a teacher shortage is, I guess, nothing new to me or nothing new to our district, accept maybe it’s getting a little bit more where everybody’s fighting for the same teachers now or the same students – the few students who are coming out of the teacher education programs,” said Sanders.
Grandel said some rural Missouri districts have not had as much of a problem with vacancies.
“It’s not something that we normally deal with is a teacher shortage. We’re close enough to Springfield that we end up with really good candidates,” she said. “This year, that was maybe a little bit different. Overall though, I would say that rural may be a little bit better off on that, or at least, if you are close to suburban rural because we’re not feeling it as badly as some places. I think that we’re not losing as many teachers because we were in school most of the time during the pandemic. We had that spring where we weren’t in school, but we didn’t teach remotely that following year and we weren’t remote this year at all. And so, our lives kind of continued closer to what was normal. And then as well, I don’t think that we have seen the discipline issues that resulted from the pandemic for so many schools that are larger than us.”
They shared some of their ideas for the commission to consider. Sanders said respect for the profession is key.
“Overall, our profession, we get beat up all the time. We get beat up all the time that the test scores are a good, but they’re not good enough. Compensation is always good. Our district, we just got a new compensation package where we’re all getting 8% raises, I think it is. So, we’re making progress, but 8% raises for somebody who’s been in a system for so long, it still doesn’t match where I should be. But on the other hand, I want teachers to be celebrated. Teachers need to be celebrated, like daily, monthly, within the buildings, within the district. I always say if our superintendent gave us a pencil, even though it’s small, it shows that he cares a little bit. It’s just the small things that lead to the compensation, because I think if you get respect from the beginning, and everything else comes along with me, the money will come. You don’t care as much about the money when you know that you are appreciated,” said Sanders.
Grandel said respect for teachers and administrators would go a long way.
“That idea of professional respect is so important, just the idea that the entire profession is appreciated is going to help so much with recruitment and retention both,” she said. “If there is one group of people who have it worse than teachers is administrators right now. I say worse than teachers – I love my job, so it’s not like that. But I do know that if we have an issue with recruitment and retention for teachers, it’s doubled with administrators. I think that we often do have new administrators regularly because they are leaving so quickly. I think that the average for a superintendent is like four or five years before they choose to not be a superintendent anymore. I do think that we need to recognize that superintendents and principals need help as well. They’re struggling.”
She cited a sizeable pay gap between rural and urban schools versus suburban schools.
“I think, too, that salary is important,” said Grandel. “I think if you look at rural salaries specifically, then that’s where that low – that $25,000 hits. It’s not very many districts or very many teachers who make that. But certainly, if you compare, say, my salary, even at 28 years, to a teacher, who is like me, in a suburban district, close to St. Louis, and I have someone in mind, but I’m not going to use her name, we teach the same thing. We’re both department chairs. We’re both highly respected, highly awarded teachers and she makes approximately 35 or $40,000 more than me every year and I’ve been in the classroom an extra five years more than she has. And so, when we look at that huge difference between rural and suburban, and I honestly think urban and suburban, then we can see why teachers want to teach suburban. Rural schools are sort of a pipeline – they come to us for a couple of years, they teach here, and then they want to shoot off to a suburban district where they’re going to make more money. I think that’s really difficult for kids, because then there’s no consistency year after year. And we’re continually working with teachers who are not master teachers. They’re great teachers, but at the beginning of your career you’re really still just trying to get yourself together and learn how to deal with the classroom and everything that’s been asked of you. And so, I think that’s a huge, huge difference.”
Sanders said the urban schools are also like a pipeline for teachers.
“I call us the minor leagues,” he said. “Even though we’re the minor leagues and if you survive the St Louis Public, nine times out of 10 you can go anywhere in the state and teach where they can offer you $10,000 more off the top.”
Grandel said wellness plans should be offered to teachers.
“We need to make sure that they have mental health professionals available to them, and that they’re able to take days off that are specific for mental health, even if they’re not going to a therapy session. I also think that they need to have maybe free childcare, paternity leave, because most dads don’t get any time off at all,” she said.
Both Sanders and Grandel think the commission should consider more opportunities for teachers to move up without moving out of the classroom.
“I think it’s great that teachers become administrators, but a lot of teachers, myself included, I don’t want to be an administrator,” said Grandel. “And yet, what am I supposed to do that will still keep me in the classroom, but won’t necessarily keep me at the same salary or at the same work? I love everything about what I do, but I also think that I would love the opportunity to say, work half day in my district as a teacher and then work half day for an organization like maybe MSTA or NEA or MSBA, or something like that, or even as a consultant, so that I’m actually using that knowledge and getting to pass it down to younger teachers, instead of spending 60-70 hours a week specifically working only in my classroom.”
“I don’t want to leave the classroom,” said Sanders. “I got my doctorate and somebody said, ‘Are you going to be a principal now?’ No, I don’t want to. I want to affect the kids that I affect, the families that I affect. Can I affect more? Possibly, but I want to be in the classroom- to lead from the classroom.”
The Nebraska Legislature passed a bill this year that would provide financial aid and student loan forgiveness to teachers. Grandel and Sanders would like to see this effort considered in Missouri.
“What the problem that we’re facing is, is that it’s costing teachers maybe 60 $80,000 to get their degree, and then it takes them forever to pay it off,” said Grandel. “And so, many young teachers, I think 20% of teachers during the regular school year, have a second job. And the reason why so many young teachers have a second job is because they have to pay off their student loans, and they don’t have enough money for rent and a student loan with a teaching position that they have. And so, if we could alleviate those student loans and make it so that they didn’t have that stressor, and honestly, if we were telling them that ahead of time, ‘You’re not going to have to worry about loans. We’re going to help you with that,’ it’s going to make the teaching profession so much more interesting to them.”
“If I know that I could get my loans forgiven after so many years, or I can get money to actually go to school to become a teacher, you get more people in the field,” said Sanders.
Grandel has a message for aspiring teachers: do it.
“It (teaching) has been so valuable and worthwhile. My life work has been in the classroom and it has been worth every single second of it,” she said. “If you are thinking about being a teacher, be one.”
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s timeline is short – members plan to give its recommendations to the Missouri Board of Education in October. The 22-member commission includes Missouri Board of Education members, lawmakers, the Governor’s Office and business leaders across the state.
To listen to the full Show Me Today interview with Albert Sanders and Melissa Grandel, click below.
Missouri Board of Education President: Teacher recruitment and retention is most pressing issue facing schools (LISTEN): https://wp.me/p16gMv-ymH
Missouri launches new teacher recruitment platform to help address educator shortage (AUDIO): https://wp.me/p16gMv-y8p
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