ISD board converses about teacher shortages in county, state

CENTREVILLE — Teacher shortages plaguing St. Joseph County, and the state and country as a whole, as well as its causes and possible solutions, were a major topic of discussion at Monday’s St. Joseph County ISD Board of Education meeting.

Currently, a number of school districts in St. Joseph County are looking to fill staffing positions from teachers and aides to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, even as the 2022-23 school year got underway this week.

According to ISD Superintendent Teresa Belote, there are around 95 open positions in districts across the county, with around 30 at the ISD alone.

Belote said she has reached out to state legislators about the shortages in recent weeks, saying while there have been a good number of positions filled in local districts already, there has been “backfilling” occurring, which could create other consequences.

“Just looking at teachers only, I have districts reporting right now how many [positions] they’re able to fill, and the challenge I’m concerned about, and I’ve shared this with legislators, is we have lots of that backfill done via substitutes,” Belote said. “We’re grateful that we have subs, but we will not have subs left on sub lists if they are in classrooms all day every day.”

Belote said the ISD’s Pathfinder Center is operational at this time, but said she’s concerned if they will stay operational once flu season or family emergencies start popping up and staff have to miss time.

Sub pay in St. Joseph County, Belote said, has been increased over the last several months in more districts, however there were still challenges to finding people to fill those spots. Belote also discussed a recently-passed law that allows teachers who have been retired for nine months or more to come back to teach in classrooms without a penalty to their retirement or paying into the retirement system; however, she said it was a “short-term solution” and the question remained whether or not there would be those who are retired willing to do so.

“We’re not seeing people standing in line waiting for jobs, because, to be frank, once you’re retired maybe you’ve already moved on to a different job or opportunity. I have lots of friends that say, ‘I love you Teresa, but I love my grandkids more,’ and full respect for that,” Belote said. “Helping people understand and appreciate the efforts there, it’s one of many things that needs to happen.”

ISD Board President Elizabeth O’Dell then asked why teacher shortages are still happening, even after all the measures put in place to try to attract people to the position. Belote said there were multiple reasons, with one of the main reasons being that some teachers do not feel respected in their positions.

“Some of the research tells us that people don’t feel supported and respected in the way they did previously. There’s a lot of politics that then lead to feeling disenfranchised or unappreciated. There’s also an abundance of paperwork; I hear that and saw that in the research,” Belote said. “Certainly, money always plays into that, but that was not the primary reason people cited leaving education. It was lack of respect or appreciation for the heaviness of the job, worrying about kids, that it takes a toll on them when they’re worrying about whether they have food or a place to live or family supports.”

O’Dell added that if people would stop “stigmatizing” teachers and making teachers “scapegoats in the middle of our political rhetoric,” it would be “helpful.”

“Our children are important, and it’s critical that we honor the work that the teachers do in the same way we do law enforcement and nurses,” O’Dell said. “Somehow, ‘let’s be kind to teachers’ needs to be the year’s motto so we can get teachers to come back into the classroom and be happy to be here. Then we will be happy that they’re there.”

Belote said those that walk in the halls every day are “in awe” with the relationships between the students and teachers, adding there is a “false perception to some degree” of what goes on in schools.

“What I see are people that care about each other and that are doing their best to celebrate kids every day,” Belote said. “Those are the people who are showing up and doing the work.”

Deanna Strudwick, the ISD’s executive director of special education, said the teaching profession should be talked about more highly than it already is.

“This is such an honorable profession, and we have to talk about it in that meaningful way so that we attract the new and young and important people,” Strudwick said.

ISD Board Trustee Patty Keller said the county’s new Teacher Academy program through Career and Technical Education could help encourage local students to go into education.

“It’s going to bring young adults and teenagers in to see what’s going on, so they’re not necessarily listening to the news and media about what’s happening in schools, they’re seeing it firsthand in their communities, and it’ll be a good way to support what we do, and hopefully encourage them to go into education,” Keller said.

O’Dell said everyone has a role to “elevate” teachers and talking about them in an “honorable” way.

“Let’s be very proud of our teachers, because we need our teachers. We need them desperately,” O’Dell said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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