Teacher turnover burdens schools statewide

By Ellie Wolfe

The Maine Monitor

One Maine school district is paying teachers an hourly stipend to act as custodial staff after work. Another is trying to recruit parents to work as educational technicians. A third has 12 teacher openings it needs to fill before school starts Aug. 31.

Maine schools are struggling to fill openings after an unusual number of educators retired or quit in the past three years, leaving roles vacant as the school year approaches. Teachers and administrators blame the departures and resulting shortages on the grueling toll of teaching during the pandemic, an aging workforce and fewer new teachers.

More than 1,200 educators, including teachers, education technicians and administrators, quit in 2021 before reaching retirement age, the most in the past seven years, according to data compiled by the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. In the same year, another 821 teachers, administrators and other educators retired, a slight decrease from 2020. The most recent high point for retirements was 2019, when 916 retired, according to the state board figures.

This year, the number of teachers, education technicians and administrators who quit before reaching retirement age and those who retired are slightly outpacing recent years. Between January and July, 654 Maine educators left their jobs before reaching retirement age, compared to 569 in the same time period of 2021 and 360 in 2020.

The number of actual retirements also has increased this year; from January through July, 665 educators retired in the state. During the same period in 2021, the number was 628, and in 2020 it was 581.

This trend mirrors nationwide data, according to Penny Bishop, the dean of the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development. She also said fewer college students choose teaching as a profession.

“Prior to the pandemic, teacher education enrollment nationally was down 30 percent, and that decrease has gotten worse, with that gap getting bigger,” she said.

According to the Maine Department of Education’s TeachMaine plan, since 2010 the number of teachers completing educator preparation programs in the state has dropped by 53 percent, the third-largest decline in the nation. The report said that in 2019, roughly 55 percent of experienced teachers and administrators “seriously considered leaving.”

Timothy Doak, the superintendent for Regional School District 39, which covers the Caribou and Stockholm area, and Maine School Administrative District 20, which includes Fort Fairfield, said his districts have seen a drastic decrease in available teachers.

“We do have a lot of openings and we have almost no applicants for these jobs, so it’s a little scary,” he said. “Prior to the last couple of years, you almost stayed to the end of your career, and the last year or two, I’ve had fairly younger to mid-career teachers decide to move on and try something else, which is not something we saw a lot of in northern Maine.”

Currently, Doak is looking for someone to teach math and science classes at Caribou High. If his district cannot find any suitable applicants before the first day of school Monday, the plan is to ask teachers to come out of retirement. He is also considering busing students to other schools or trying online learning options.

“One of the things making me very nervous is once you lose those survival courses for your students, it won’t take too long before parents will look to other school districts for that help,” he said, though remote learning also presents challenges because internet access for students in rural areas can be difficult. “The remote learning that we did for the year during COVID almost ruined us. Connectivity was awful in Aroostook (County).”

Besides a lack of teachers, he is searching for school bus drivers, cooks and custodians. Last year the district dropped from three custodians per building to one. To help, the schools offer teachers stipends to clean the buildings at the end of the day.

But the thing that concerns Doak the most is the lack of young teachers the district is attracting.

“I think we’re not seeing a lot of younger students going into the teaching profession, which is worrisome down the road,” he said.

According to the United States census, Maine has the oldest average population in the United States, which has affected the school system. The TeachMaine plan reported that 15.6 percent, or one in six teachers in the state, are over age 60. In 1999 it was 2 percent, or one in every 50 teachers.

Bishop, who has been in the education profession for nearly 20 years, said the University of Maine has seen a “considerable decrease” in the number of students interested in teaching. This can especially burden schools in rural districts.

“Most teachers teach within 50 miles of where they went to high school, and we’re a rural state,” she said. “So that makes it even more challenging, because rural and isolated communities find the greatest challenge when it comes to teacher recruitment and retention.”

Sixty-three percent of public schools in the state are in rural areas, according to a study on teacher turnover rates in Maine from 2005-06 to 2016-17 by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

To combat this challenge, the state’s Department of Education has begun to hand out more emergency and conditional licenses to those still in teaching programs, Bishop said. This reduces qualification requirements, which she thinks will hurt the school districts the program is meant to help.

“People who are alternatively certified are less likely to stay in the profession; they turn over much more quickly,” she said. “There’s a great economic cost to that turnover to the communities. Generally it costs about $10,000 to onboard a new teacher. It tends to disproportionately happen in communities that are under-resourced or have historically marginalized populations.”

Rural districts often have a harder time recruiting teachers, so they turn to those with conditional or emergency licenses, something Michael Zboray, the superintendent for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, has experienced. His district serves MDI towns, Trenton and nearby island communities.

“It’s really difficult to find somebody who wants to, you know, drive to the ferry, get on a ferry, go to the island, and then they have to come off and go back home,” he said. “You might have folks that are in school and want to be there to work toward their certification, but it’s really important that we have people who are properly educated and trained.”

Across the state, superintendents are also reporting a shortage of education technicians, also known as ed techs, who provide special support for students and assist teachers in the classroom.

In 2021, a total of 504 people in two state ed tech job categories quit, according to the Maine Public Employees Retirement System — the highest number in seven years. This year, 239 ed techs have left their jobs, a slower pace than a year ago.

In Zboray’s district in and around Mount Desert Island, a principal is trying to recruit parents to fill in as ed techs. Other school districts are offering signing incentives to attract these crucial classroom educators.

Like Doak, Zboray also plans to ask teachers to come out of retirement or have the staff juggle their responsibilities.

Multiple superintendents in the state said special education ed techs and teachers tend to be the hardest to find. There is such a shortage that 9 percent of special education teachers in the state are under conditional certifications, according to a 2020 study on educator recruitment and retention rates by the Education Policy Research Institute.

Pay has been an issue for most teachers in Maine, the lowest-paying state for teachers in New England, according to TeachMaine. Grace Leavitt, the president of the Maine Education Association, said salary has contributed to the teacher shortages.

“There’s approximately a 78 percent pay gap for classroom teachers and others in certified roles, meaning that professionals in other professions who have comparable education and expectations are earning roughly 20 percent more than a teacher’s salary,” she said.

“A lot of support professionals just don’t feel like their roles are so essential. They don’t feel that they’re recognized and respected, and they’re not paid anywhere near what they need to be paid. You see the signs of the fast-food places that, you know, are paying way more per hour than some of our support professionals have.”

Maine’s 1999 teacher salaries were higher than those in 2018 after adjusting for inflation, according to a 2020 study on educator recruitment and retention from the University of Southern Maine, though that recently changed when Governor Janet Mills approved a minimum teacher wage to $40,000. Despite this increase, there are other financial disincentives to teaching in the state, according to Bishop, the UMaine dean.

One drawback to teaching in Maine is the Windfall Elimination Act, which says teachers do not buy into Social Security, instead relying on their pensions once they retire.

“Years ago, when someone entered the field of teaching, they stayed in any profession, for that matter, their whole lives,” Bishop said. “It’s just not what people do anymore. They don’t go into one profession and stay there for 30 years. Thirty years ago, it made sense because they were teachers their whole lives, so they would come out with a pension that was sufficient and comparable to Social Security.”

But teachers in the state now are less likely to stay in their field, and delaying their ability to buy into Social Security puts them at a severe disadvantage in planning for retirement.

Leavitt also believes a lack of appreciation and respect for teachers is contributing to the retention rate for educators in the state.

“You’ve seen some of the attacks at school board meetings over the past several months, especially in the minority of people,” she said. “I do feel that the vast majority of people in our community support our educators, but to be questioning curriculum … the teachers are working with the experts that are trained in our fields and so there should be respect for the training and the professionalism that we have.”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.

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