By Lola Duffort/ VTDigger
In Rutland City, school administrators searched high and low for a qualified higher-level math teacher this spring.
Coming up empty, they asked their counterparts in neighboring towns if they could recommend anyone on the market. Basically everyone responded the same way – “We’re looking, too.”
“Almost every high school/7-12 setting in the southwest of Vermont was looking for at least one math teacher,” said Rutland City Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss.
The Vermont Agency of Education annually surveys school districts to identify personnel shortages. Qualified teachers serving in those areas can get certain federal loan benefits. The most recent survey found secondary math teachers are in short supply in Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties.
An even rarer find? Library media specialists, school counselors and music teachers. All have shortages statewide. School nurses and Spanish teachers are also in high demand and short supply in eight different counties. There’s also a shortage of principals, as well as Latin, French, health, education technology and design technology teachers in selected counties.
“Overall, we’re seeing less and less people going into the education field. It’s harder to get principals than it’s ever been. It’s harder to get superintendents. It’s harder to get teachers,” said Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association.
Libby Bonesteel, the superintendent in the Montpelier-Roxbury school district, just arrived in her position from the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union. She noted that while some positions are generally difficult to staff, there’s a big difference on how tough recruitment is, depending on the district and school.
“If I had an elementary position opening here in Montpelier-Roxbury, I would probably have over 100 applicants. We would be lucky to have 10, 20 in some of our schools in Franklin Northwest,” she said.
Smaller schools, especially in the most rural areas, often pay less, she said. And younger recruits often want those local amenities and recreational opportunities that smaller towns are less likely to offer. Principals, in particular, are a perennial headache for the state’s smallest campuses.
“Small schools don’t tend to pay more, but the job of the principal isn’t any less in a small school. In fact, often, it’s more, because the principal has to wear way more hats,” Bonesteel said.
Smaller schools are at a disadvantage in other ways, too – particularly for niche subjects.
“If I’m a smaller school, it’s really hard to hire a health educator because you’re only going to need a (half-time teacher),” Bliss said.
This year’s survey found principals were in short supply in just two counties: Rutland and Franklin. But in the three years prior, the agency found a statewide shortage each year.
“With principals, I can remember getting a dozen or two applicants for almost every job, and now sometimes are you’re getting two or three, and only one or two of those is licensed. The pool is a lot thinner than it’s ever been before. And we turn over around 20 percent of principals a year,” Nichols said.
Meanwhile, lower-paying, often smaller districts typically see higher turnover. And because qualified candidates are even harder to find in those districts, schools in those district in some ways become training grounds for schools in larger, often more affluent districts.
“Younger teachers tend to come to those districts because places like South Burlington and Mount Mansfield, and (Chittenden South Supervisory Union), won’t hire them as newbies coming out of school. But they get two, three years of experience with places like Franklin Northwest, and then they jump ship for a higher-paying district,” Bonesteel said. It’s a “significant equity issue,” she said.
The high turnover means kids in more remote, smaller schools are less likely to have qualified, experienced teachers compared to their peers in more densely populated areas.
“Oftentimes you have the teachers with the most experience who will be teaching the kids who need the least experienced teachers,” Nichols said.