Virginia Schools Dealing With Teacher Shortages

August 26, 2007

Stephanie Sugioka, armed with two master's degrees, thought she could do some good by teaching in Virginia's public schools. She'd taught at the community college level and in private schools. But she found her experience teaching in a Norfolk high school to be a disaster and resigned after teaching one semester.

School districts in Virginia and other states are preparing to deal with teacher shortages as baby boomers are retiring, new teachers are leaving the profession and the number of students in classrooms is growing. The hardest-to-fill positions continue to be in math, science, special education and elementary education.

The teachers say higher salaries and less demanding working conditions would help.

Virginia ranks 28th among states in teacher salaries, with the average salary nearly $5,000 less than the national average of $47,674, according to National Education Association figures for 2004-05.

"We want the best and the brightest but when you couple barriers like finances and poor working conditions, they do cause problems for those people jumping hoops to come into the profession," said Princess Moss, president of the Virginia Education Association.

Moss said 30 percent of new hires leave the profession in the first three years and 50 percent leave in the first five years. But "people that stay on jobs longer than they projected love the environment and love how they're treated," she said.

Michelle Mack started teaching in February after graduating from Virginia Union University in December. But She already plans to leave the Richmond public schools after teaching one more year. She loves what she does, but would appreciate more support from parents.

"If the pay stayed the same, and the recognition increased, I would be content," she said.

Mounting recruiting drives similar to those used by private corporations, improving working conditions and judging teachers by more than just test scores could help attract and retain teachers, said Harriet Morrison, director of the Center for Teacher Education at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond.

In Virginia, the passing score on the teaching license test is so high that many candidates are eliminated, even if they fall short by one or two points.

"We talk about a teacher shortage but we create barriers to sort of enable that shortage," said Morrison. There needs to be accountability, but it doesn't always have to be in test scores, she said.

As for Sugioka, she's going back to college to get her doctorate in curriculum and instruction. She hopes to train teachers and encourage them to push for better pay and working conditions.

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