An education emergency: Teachers in short supply

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Teaching in Virginia can be a lesson in long hours for little pay.

“I am basically working with groups of students all day long. I have a 30 minute planning time in the middle of the day. I do have like 20 or 20 minutes for lunch as well. 30 minutes of planning in the middle of the day isn’t enough so I end of taking it home I do it in the evening, I do it in the mornings, I do it on the weekends.”

That’s a typical day for Heidi Casper, an ESOL teacher with Chesterfield Public Schools. So, Casper isn’t surprised to hear you could hang a help wanted sign outside just about every public school here in the Commonwealth.

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A new report from Teachers Of Tomorrow finds Virginia is currently short 4,262 teachers.

Data shared with 8News from the Virginia Department Of Education shows the problem will only get worse next year: The department puts the shortage at 6,392.

“That’s horrific, that is a huge number,” says Dave Saba, Chief Development Officer for Teachers Of Tomorrow, an alternative certification program helping states hire teachers.

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Saba says young people aren’t choosing a career in teaching anymore, with undergraduate enrollment way down.

“There needs to be new on-ramps to teaching,” Saba said. “Virginia needs to do something now.”

“There needs to be new on-ramps to teaching. Virginia needs to do something now.”

8News looked into teacher vacancies at your child’s school district in Central Virginia. While it’s the middle of the school year, Richmond still has 56 teacher openings, Henrico 34.5, Petersburg 28. 5, Chesterfield nine and Colonial Heights has one.  These are classrooms being covered by long-term substitute teachers.

“To attract teachers you got to have a better starting pay because they are always going to go where the salary is better,” says Don Wilms, President of the Chesterfield Education Association.

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Wilms and Casper say salary is not the only factor but it’s big.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the average starting salary for a teacher in the Commonwealth can be as low as $30,500 a year. On the higher end in Northern Virginia, the average is about $55,000 a year.

“Virginia is in the bottom 20 percent in the nation, and you’re not going to fix that with anything other than new revenue,” Wilms said.

Also turning teachers away is a lack of autonomy in the classroom.

“This era of testing with no child left behind, teaching is becoming scripted,” Wilms added. “One of the things the state of Virginia can do is eliminate as many as possible SOL tests as they can.”

Educators also complain about class size.

“Anecdotally, one of the reasons we hear why teachers leave is it is frustrating for them to have a class that is 35 of more students because they can’t do a good job and it wears them out.”

State Delegate James LeMunyon has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to limit class size to 29 students for grades K-6. However, with teachers in short supply, it was defeated. LeMunyon has also introduced legislation that would require exit interviews for quitting teachers in some districts.

“It’s really important that we understand why,” LeMunyon said.

Desperate to plug the gap, the state is calling on teachers to come out of retirement.

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Letters like this one going out right now to retirees asking for help in Richmond Public Schools. It’s already been done in Petersburg.

“This VRS initiative allows some terrific teachers that are retired to come back in and really make a difference,” says Dr. Steve Staples, Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Virginia Department of Education

But Saba says it’s not enough.

“It’s a band-aid we need to put on right now,” Saba explains.

Staples says the state is looking at more long-term solutions.

“We are looking at is how we license teachers,” he explained.

The Virginia Department of Ed’s “Career Switcher Program” gives credit for real life experience in other careers and condenses the timeline for anyone who may want to shift to teaching.

“Over just a period of about 18 months they can literally go from one career to the next as a fully qualified teacher,” Staples said.

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VDOE also has a statewide program that aims to recruit high school students into the teaching, it is called Teachers For Tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Casper, whose husband is about to retire from the military, will soon have a decision to make about whether or not she can afford to continue to teach in Virginia.

“My husband I would like to be able to stay here,” she said.

A raise for teachers is part of a budget battle currently going on in the General Assembly.

VDOE is offering a minority recruitment teacher event. Click here for details. Henrico County Public Schools is also holding a job fair later this month. Chesterfield County Public Schools is searching for educators to fill several openings in critical need areas for the 2017-18 school year.

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