ALPENA — In his experiences making hiring decisions as a school administrator, Justin Gluesing can recall times when a teaching vacancy would bring in dozens of resumes from interested applicants.
“I would have to schedule an afternoon to go over to Central Office to review the applications, just to narrow the list to a number that we could interview,” Gluesing, superintendent of the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District, said. “Now, it’s, the minute we get an application, if it looks quality, we’re going to do an interview.”
Data from an October School Pulse Survey indicates 45% of public schools across the nation have at least one vacancy and more than 50% of public schools reported in August feeling understaffed with the 2022-23 school year set to begin.
Northeast Michigan was not immune to shortages.
A few weeks before the start of the 2022-23 school year, Alpena Public Schools had several teacher openings, as well as multiple other staff openings.
Last October, Alcona Community Schools closed for almost a week because of staffing shortages.
It’s a problem with no easy answers, though local administrators like Gluesing are doing what they can to put Northeast Michigan students and educators on solid ground.
“I think the teacher shortage is the most pressing issue facing education, both here in Michigan and truly as a nation,” Gluesing said. “I see it as all other initiatives falter or will fail unless you have quality teachers in front of students.”
‘IT’S A HARD JOB’
Graduates with new teaching certifications in hand may have dreams of connecting with excited, fresh-faced youngsters and molding young minds.
But the realities of the job are much harsher and, for the better part of a decade, data shows there may be less people going into teaching.
Data collected by Gluesing on the number of initial teaching certifications from 1997 to 2016 shows a steady decline. From 1997 to 2004, Michigan saw an average increase in the number of certifications each year, with a high of 9,664 in 2004.
The numbers dipped from there, with a 29% decrease between 2006 and 2009 and a low point of just 3,696 in 2016.
Recent data from the state shows an increase in recent years — 4,017 certificates were awarded in 2018-19, 4,283 in 2019-20, and 4,302 in 2020-21.
Teacher compensation has been an issue in recent years, as well.
Gluesing, who got his start teaching in Wisconsin, estimates his starting salary was around $27,000. Today, the average salary for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree is around $40,000, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Lansing State Journal.
Some districts took drastic measures to retain teachers, such as Detroit Public Schools, which raised beginning teacher salaries to $52,000, raised wages for veteran teachers, and compressed the timeline for contractual raises.
Changes in benefits — such as pay cuts — for teachers and other school employees have also been factors in the lack of new teachers or the number of teachers retiring.
“If you look at the cost of education in 1996 versus the cost of education now, people can do math,” Gluesing said. “They can look at it and go, ‘If I invest four years at Central (Michigan University) and it’s going to cost me between $80,000 and $100,000 dollars to get me through that education — absent scholarships or other things — how long is going to take me to pay that off on a teacher salary?'”
Those teachers and staff who remain face the day-to-day challenge of navigating an educational landscape that seems to have only gotten more challenging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social and political issues.
For those reasons and others, burnout has been cited as a contributing factor to teacher shortages.
A June Gallup poll found that more than four in 10 K-12 workers said they always or very often felt burnt out at work.
“One of the impacting things is it’s a tough job,” Gluesing said. “I mean, it’s not just homecoming parades and, you know, Sadie Hawkins dances. It’s a hard job.”
A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM
One way to overcome shortages is reaching out to qualified individuals who may have thought about teaching but are wary of the cost.
Alternative pathways are open to graduates with a bachelor’s degree that allow them to become a full-time teacher under an interim teaching certificate while they work toward full certification.
“I think many of them wonder about teaching, but I think their misperception is, ‘But, if I’m going to be a teacher, I’ve got to go back all the way to the beginning and start over and that is cost-prohibitive,'” Gluesing said. “If you’re someone that has a bachelor’s degree and are interested in teaching, you should call me, because I’d be happy to talk about what your options are for the shortest distance between where you are now to where you want to be in a teaching setting.”
Another solution is to work together with other districts.
Earlier this month, AMA ESD became part of Talent Together, a partnership that includes 63 counties spanning from the Upper Peninsula to Southeast Michigan and was created as a way to address the teaching shortage. The partnership aims to create a pipeline for aspiring teachers by providing alternative routes to certification.
Locally, Gluesing said he’s working with Alpena Community College to create partnerships with some of the state’s universities so students interested in teaching can start their education here for two years before continuing elsewhere.
Such initiatives, administrators hope, will deepen the talent pools available for job openings.
Still another solution is for the state to invest more money into education and legislation signed earlier this year aims to do just that. In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan education budget that includes money to fund teacher recruitment.
That budget includes Funding MI Future Educator Fellowships, which pay up to $10,000 in tuition for 2,500 future Michigan educators annually, $9,600 stipends each semester for student teachers, Grow-Your-Own programs that help districts put support staff on no-cost paths to become educators, as well as investment into teacher retirements.
“This year, the budget, I believe, has over $500 million invested towards Grow-Your-Own initiatives,” Gluesing said. “I mean, that’s a lot of money, and I think, for the first time, it demonstrates the urgency of this issue.”