A statewide commission is working to find the key ingredients for a recipe that will improve the climate and culture in Missouri’s K-12 public schools. The commission members – or cooks in the kitchen in this case – are putting their heads together to dish out a menu of recommendations that will meet the needs of today’s teachers, and in turn, their students.

Members have been meeting for the past year to find ways to better recruit and retain teachers. Last year, the group recommended a path to increase teacher pay long-term; boosting mental health resources for school staff; and tuition assistance for educators, among other things.

A meeting Friday in Jefferson City was part of round two of the commission’s work to peel back the layers of an onion and get to the core of Missouri’s alarming exodus of teachers. The state loses about half of its educators within the first five years of entering the profession.

During the meeting, a panel of people in the school community advocated for tools that could enhance the environment.

Eric Blankenship, a band teacher at Lincoln County R-III Schools, said if Missouri does not get a handle on its teacher shortage, staffing and students will suffer.

“We have five math teachers in our ninth grade center, three of which at the beginning of the school year were long-term subs uncertified to teach math. We had two math teachers and three placeholders,” he said. “One-hundred eighty of our 600 students are failing math. Those are correlated. We’re not going to make them do it again. They’re going to move to 10th grade. And even though next year they’re going to get a certified teacher, they’re already behind.”

He said rallying around the less experienced teachers and having the experienced ones coaching the newer teachers will help to keep the younger educators from jumping ship.

“I think our younger educators are often afraid to ask for help because it’s perceived as not knowing what to do,” said Blankenship. “And the answer is, ‘You’re right. You don’t know what to do yet and that’s okay.’”

Ashley Gerald is a behavioral interventionist in Florissant. Her position was created to replace in-school suspensions. She focuses on teaching methods to help prevent behavior outbursts.

She said an ingredient her school could benefit from is additional supports for parents.

“Parents are lost dealing with some of our behaviorally challenged students,” she said. “They need more supports beyond what we can give them. Even when we are able to refer them to outside counseling, you’ve got waiting lists, you’ve got, ‘Oh, your child does not qualify for individual educational plans.’”

Kim Greenlee, a fifth grade teacher in Potosi, said she feels unsupported by the state.

“The foundation formula is a big deal,” she said. “It hasn’t been updated in almost, what 20 years? It has stayed the same and inflation is so aggressive. So when I’m talking to my family members in education and even the teachers in my building, it all comes back to climate and culture on a broadened perspective. Our daily living cannot keep up with the rising cost of everything around us.”

Jenny Ulrich, superintendent of Lonedell R-XIV Schools, said her district has traditional staffing. Her district is made up of about 340 students.

“We have a principal and the superintendent. We have teachers and we have counselors,” said Ulrich. “But we have so many other needs, aside from that, that are not filled. I had a principal who was with us for five years. He went on to be a principal in St. Louis in a larger district. He said to me, ‘The one thing that I cannot get over is the difference in staffing that I have in my district here compared to the district that you’re in.’ He said, he has a building of 340 kids, same as ours, he has twice the staff that we have.”

Ulrich said the $50 million in state funding for school safety efforts is needed.

“We need it right now, like right now because I’m responsible for the safety of these people in my care every day. Teachers need to know that you see the fear and the anxiety that they have. That was not their 10 and 15 years ago when they walked into their classrooms. School resource officers, trauma counselors, behavior interventionist, all of these are positions that were not in schools 15 years ago, and those are strains on our budget. We need an assistant principal, but that’s the last position I fill because I’m trying to get to the classroom. I’m trying to create, we have an opportunity room for our kids who are dysregulated. They have a place that they can go with a professional who can help them, de-escalate. But these are all resources we didn’t need to fund 10-15 years ago. So it’s very trying,” she said.

Mark Walker is the chairman of the commission. He hopes the panel can come up with the magic potion.

“The culture and climate of a school district, a school classroom, makes a huge difference in whether a teacher really wants to stay for multiple years, whether they want to make a career out of it. Teachers will rally behind quality leaders and they know quality leaders are going to make a difference in how that school is going to function, and how the teacher is going to be supported,” said Walker.

Walker went on to say that administrators are stretched as thin as teachers are.

He said he wants to replicate supports and systems that some schools are using.

“A lot of it comes back to resources, so we need to figure out how we do that. There are transitions happening in the types of support that teachers need in classrooms, so that’s a big aha for me, too – behavioral instructional leaders, instructional coaching, and additional training for principals, and other leaders in schools,” he said.

The commission plans to present a sweetened version of the recipe in August to the Missouri Board of Education.

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