Teachers ask legislators for solutions on short staffing

By: - February 24, 2022 6:58 am

Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

For two years, school officials have sounded the alarm over veteran teachers burning out because of short staffing, the impact on education when teachers have more than 20 students in one classroom, and the plummeting number of college graduates pursuing a career in education. 

On Tuesday, educators met again with lawmakers on the Committee for Public Schools for a two-and-a-half-hour discussion of these problems — and more — that have plagued New Jersey’s classrooms. 

It’s time for solutions, the educators said. 

“We’ve got to address this right now. There is absolutely a crisis that we are in and it is upon us. We are asking for help,” said Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association. 

The pandemic exacerbated a long-standing problem seen nationally: The amount of college students pursuing education has dropped more than 50% since the 1970s, leaving fewer younger teachers to replace retirees. And more and more teachers are leaving the classroom, frustrated with virtual learning, ever-changing COVID-19 rules, and increased pressure from parents and politicians, educators said.

Julian Vasquez, dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, said there are incentives that would attract more people to the education profession. Making higher education less expensive would not only encourage more people to pursue teaching careers, he said, but it would also attract more people who are minorities or come from low-income households. 

Vasquez cited Camden’s loan forgiveness program for teachers who live in Promise Zones — high-poverty areas the federal government has targeted for economic stimulus — and a bill in the Kentucky Legislature that would give $10,000 in loan forgiveness to teachers who finish their teaching programs in less than three years. 

More work needs to be done to hire more Black and Latino teachers and diversify school staff around the state, the educators agreed. 

“Our teachers just do not reflect our student population, and that is a problem that is rooted in structural obstacles like the cost of higher education, potential biases, and certification exams,” said Sharon Pringle, of the Education Law Center. 

Oakland Schools Superintendent Gina Coffaro mentioned a group of 229 students at William Paterson University studying to become educators. They have completed 60 credits, but have not completed a basic skills requirement needed to obtain a teaching license, she said. Coffaro suggested giving those students another testing option to get them into the hiring pool.

“We have to look at how we’re presenting the licensure requirements because I think within five years, if we don’t look at this right now, we’re all going to be looking back on this day, and nothing’s going to be resolved because our teacher training programs are going to see a continued decrease,” she said. 

Other witnesses urged the committee to draft legislation to relax certain barriers to getting a teaching certificate, like GPA requirements and certification exams. Prospective teachers must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

“The GPA is not a predictor of success in the classroom, and I don’t think it ever will be. No one can convince me that a person with a 2.85 (GPA) is a worse teacher than someone who got a 3.25,” said James Harris, of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators.

He added Black and Latino test-takers tend to score worse on standardized exams, like the required Praxis test for teachers in New Jersey. That also contributes to the lack of diversity among educators, he said.

Legislators have acted to ease the teacher shortage. In the last legislative session, they passed a bill that allows retirees to return to the classroom and still collect their pensions, and one that permits prospective teachers to get evaluated by the Department of Education instead of taking a basic skills test. Both bills were signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.

A third bill (S904) that would remove the in-state residency requirement for public school teachers advanced in the waning days of the last session, but didn’t reach the governor’s desk. It has not yet gone up for a vote in this session. 

Although teachers have highlighted short-staffing since the pandemic began, they say it’s only gotten worse since 2020. Policies put in place to increase the number of people in the hiring pool — like temporary certificates issued to candidates with bachelor’s degrees not in education — have expired, they noted.

“I think that certificate is needed more today than it was during COVID, when most districts were virtual and we really had the flexibility to deal with some of our staffing challenges,” said Danielle West-Augustin, director of Queen City Academy Charter School. 

Anthony Sciotto, curriculum director for Hamilton Township schools, said the pandemic has led to more staff members taking leaves of absence to care for elderly parents or their children, as well as an uptick in maternity and paternity leaves, creating a high demand for long-term substitutes.

“We try to prevent as much interruption as possible, and this has been a challenging year,” he said. “I’m worried if this continues, districts — particularly high school districts — may have to eliminate courses.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.