It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, two weeks before the start of a new school year. Rich Appel is stressed.
Usually, the Horicon Superintendent would be busy overseeing meetings and chatting with his crop of new teachers. Instead, he’s still scrambling to find them.
Appel’s not alone. From big districts like Madison (27,000 enrolled students) to mid-sized like Neenah (7,000 students) and small like Horicon (800 students), principals statewide are simply not getting enough qualified applicants.
“As an elementary school principal back in the ‘90s, I would have 100 to 150 applicants for a kindergarten to second grade position,” Appel told WBAY-TV in Green Bay. “I’m currently sitting at five for both, and most of those applied for both positions.”
The story is similar even in a growing community like Madison. Superintendent Carlton Jenkins has been on a national media blitz, appearing on CNN and NBC’s “Meet the Press” to discuss the nationwide teacher shortage that’s now hitting close to home.
“This is our largest number of vacancies since 2017,” Jenkins told CNN. “About 37 more vacancies than 2017. We had a teacher shortage before the pandemic; but since the pandemic, it has really increased.”
While the shortage affected every state during the 2017-2018 school year, according to data released by the US Department of Education, long hours, low pay, and added pandemic stressors have caused thousands of teachers to change professions or retire early since 2020.
Now, the pre-existing crisis is getting worse– at a time when students need schools the most. Experts estimate it will take three to five years for American kids to make up for the learning lost during the pandemic.
“We’ve done a lot of creative things,” Jim Strick, Neenah Joint School District Communications Manager, told WBAY-TV. “We just pulled a teacher out of retirement. We’re looking at people that don’t have teaching degrees and we’re getting them through a degree program.”
According to Strick, applications for specialized classes like music, tech education, and home economics have been especially sparse, and creativity only goes so far.
“What we end up doing is having other teachers cover,” he added. “We end up combining classrooms. We stretch our current staff really thin.”
Jenkins said Madison schools have resorted to that in the past and are now focused on treating teachers better, although he’s receiving backlash for a recent comment he made to the Washington Post.
“We’re just going to go after them,” Jenkins said, of his push to recruit and retain qualified teachers. “Every teacher likes their calendar, right? So we’re providing calendars, little things for them– and we have some other things planned that I don’t want to reveal because I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
That “calendar” comment was slammed on social media, from area teachers and national advocates who’ve been lobbying Wisconsin districts to increase pay and improve working conditions for all teachers.
“This is why I quit,” one former Madison teacher responded on social media, with another writing, “So many educator friends sent this to me with eye roll emojis.”
What Can Be Done
Days before the beginning of the new year, many schools still have dozens of immediate openings.
The Wisconsin Education Career Access Network (WECAN) was started in 2001 to help teachers search for jobs across the state and streamline the application, selection, and recruitment process. It serves more than 500 schools in all 72 counties.
In Part Two– the innovative way the University of Wisconsin is stepping up to recruit, train, and retain a new generation of teachers.