Paychecks and balances
10 Oct 2021 — Journal Gazette
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Editorial Board

Staffing shortages at Fort Wayne Community Schools have district officials considering hybrid instruction schedules, with some students alternating between in-person and virtual learning. The district is struggling to find bus drivers, food service workers and teachers : both substitutes and full-time teachers. As of Thursday, FWCS had job postings for more than 50 certified teaching positions.

The state's largest district isn't alone. A new survey by Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education finds 96.5% of participating districts reported teacher shortages. It's the highest number of vacancies in seven years of surveying school corporations, according to the Terre Haute's Tribune-Star. Of 290 Indiana districts, 199 responded to the survey.

The percentage of school districts reporting shortages increased by 9% over the previous year.

"This year and last have brought more challenges than many previous [years]," Terry McDaniel, ISU professor of educational leadership, told the Tribune-Star. "As a result, we are seeing educators being burned-out, scared, disappointed, and no longer enjoying the profession. We are also seeing fewer people entering the profession."

Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, said she's heard from teachers that this fall has been even more difficult than last year.

"And last year had been the most stressful and challenging year they'd ever experienced," she wrote in an email.

Federal COVID-19 relief flowing to the state and to Indiana schools has allowed some school corporations to award special stipends and some of the highest salary rate increases teachers have seen in years. FWCS' proposed contract would give teachers a 4% increase over each of the next two years. But the increases may be too little and too late.

Isabel Nuñez, professor of educational studies and director of the School of Education at Purdue University Fort Wayne, has a good handle on the teacher pipeline. She expects the hiring crunch will continue.

"The shortages are widespread, and the need for teachers in neighboring states means that their higher wages are drawing Indiana teachers away," she said in an email interview. "Teacher salaries are significantly better just over the border in Michigan."

Nuñez said enrollment in PFW's teacher education program hasn't declined as much as some schools, but reflects current pressures on the field. PFW records show 638 students enrolled in teacher education at the university this fall.

"After a brief surge in appreciation for teachers when schools closed, they are again under attack (literally and figuratively) because of controversies around mask wearing and curriculum," she wrote. "Add to that the stagnation in teachers' compensation, and the additional stress of bringing students back to speed academically and giving them additional support socially and emotionally."

There is one promising trend for FWCS and other northeast Indiana school districts. Nuñez said the majority of PFW's students remain in the state after graduation, and most stay in this region.

The Indiana State University survey also gives sharper focus to areas where teacher shortages are worst: special education, math and science. ISU's McDaniel said the percentage of districts reporting a shortage of special education teachers grew from 66% in 2020 to 82% this fall. A lack of teachers trained to work with students with special needs can result in higher caseloads for individual instructors, he said.

"How long will the existing special education teachers continue, especially if licensed in another discipline?" he told the Tribune-Star.

While the teacher shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic, it shouldn't have taken anyone by surprise. As the state of Indiana built an ever-growing budget surplus, its teachers saw the smallest pay increase in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Adjusted for inflation, Indiana teacher salaries decreased by 15% between 2002 and 2017, according to the Indiana Department of Education. High school and college students took notice and chose better-paying fields of study.

What can be done to encourage more students to go into teaching? A continuing effort to pay them as professionals, of course.

And Nuñez suggests existing educators can help.

"I would love to see current teachers sharing the joy and fulfillment of their work with their students and the community in general (which is hard to do when you are really stressed out!). To me, teaching is the most fun you can possibly have and get paid for it. I would love to tell more people about it!"

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Paychecks and balances" Journal Gazette 10 Oct 2021: A9