If you were to sit in the dentist’s chair, you’d think it would be crazy if the receptionist barged in and said, “Hi, we’re still trying to hire a hygienist. So between phone calls and appointments, I’m here to clean your teeth.
It sounds like a Three Stooges skit, but something similar is happening in our public schools, and it’s no fun at all for educators like us.
Many North Carolina students are returning to school in classrooms without qualified teachers. Due to a widespread shortage of teachers, schools are filling classrooms with substitutes, teaching assistants and unlicensed instructors. North Carolina has no education requirement to work as a substitute teacher.
The teacher shortage is worse in some counties, but it is felt statewide. Scroll through school district websites and you will see over a thousand vacant teaching positions even though the school year has already started.
The number of vacancies on the first day of school was three times higher at Charlotte Mecklenburg schools than two years ago. Only 30 percent of North Carolina students have a licensed math teacher.
Robeson County math teachers cover face-to-face lessons at one school, then join Zoom meetings to teach math remotely to students at other schools.
“The teacher shortage is real, significant and growing, and worse than we thought,” said a Robeson County deputy superintendent.
Moore County Schools are reporting 29.5 vacancies out of a total of 876 teaching positions. Moore administrators say COVID hasn’t helped. They say it has been difficult to fill vacant teaching positions with remote jobs in other industries offering the same or higher salaries.
The US Department of Education tracks areas of teacher shortage across states. For the 2021-2022 school year, the federal government says North Carolina lacks qualified teachers in all math and special education classes, and all core subjects in all elementary grades.
Many school districts are offering new teacher signing bonuses funded by federal COVID relief dollars, but the teacher shortage persists.
Behind these figures hides a real prejudice for our children. Students are less likely to learn to read from a substitute teacher who does not know the best ways to teach reading. Students are less likely to master math with a teacher who learns as they go. We let our students down during their formative years. Our children deserve better.
How did we get here? It’s deeper than COVID. Over the past decade, North Carolina state lawmakers have passed state budgets that underfund public education and undermine teachers. Politicians do not treat or pay teachers like professionals. The average salary for teachers in North Carolina is $ 10,000 lower than the national average. Experienced teachers leave the state and the profession. College students choose other careers.
A better salary would go a long way in solving this teacher shortage. New Hanover County recently doubled its local salary supplement for its teachers, who are now among the highest paid in the state. A school district with some 1,700 teachers started the school year with just 10 vacant teaching positions. Unfortunately, this is a solution that many rural counties like ours cannot afford. The teacher shortage is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution.
And the Supreme Court of our state has declared that public education is the responsibility of the state. In its “Leandro” decisions, the court declared that every child has the constitutional right to a “healthy basic education” and that the state does not assume its constitutional responsibility. The improvement plans ordered by the court include the placement of a qualified teacher in each class. So far, the state legislature has largely ignored these decisions.
Some politicians have tried to dismiss the teacher shortage by saying we need more data to see if the number of vacancies in the state is better or worse than last year.
It’s like waiting to fight the wildfire until you can confirm that the fire has spread since yesterday. The teacher shortage in North Carolina is now evident. It hurts our children now. Now is the time to fix it.
The immediate first step to ending this teacher shortage is the adoption of a state budget with better funding for public education.
Of course, state lawmakers who have underfunded our public schools are procrastinating on a $ 6.5 billion surplus and still haven’t passed a new budget that was due two months ago. So far, their budget proposals would largely ignore the North Carolina Supreme Court’s education funding requests. Instead, they would further reduce corporate income tax.
Meanwhile, many North Carolina schools rely on teaching assistants and long-term contractors to cover classrooms that do not have permanent, licensed teachers. Parents, the public and voters should tell our politicians to fix this problem now. You wouldn’t want to go to the dentist and then let the receptionist clean your teeth.
Diane Mitchell is a high school social studies teacher in Hoke County and president of the Hoke County Association of Educators. She has been an educator for 40 years.
Dee Grissett is the Coordinator of Vocational and Technical Education (CTE) in Robeson County and President of the Robeson County Association of Educators. She has been an educator for 16 years.