116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
After watching Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State speech last Tuesday, I felt compelled to write this guest editorial as a lifelong advocate for Iowa’s hardworking teachers and the children they educate, support and guide to be our next generation of leaders.
While the gesture of a $1,000 bonus for a teacher is nice, it’s not going to keep teachers from leaving the state or their profession and it will not fix the overarching teacher shortage. This crisis is statewide, complex and has been going on for far too long.
Businesses are tackling worker shortages, but we must acknowledge the teachers are the key to an educated and trained workforce.
Our goal should be policy that produces a long-term solution to a complicated problem. One that actually helps bring more teachers to the profession, retains our existing teachers and attracts more full-time and substitute teachers to Iowa.
Three years ago, Linn-Mar Superintendent Shannon Bisgard told me his top concerns had shifted from funding issues and school security to simply finding qualified teachers to fill open positions.
At that time, Bisgard urged me to write a bill that would address teacher shortages and how to solve the decrease of college students choosing education as a profession. In 2019 and 2021, I filed a teacher recruitment and retention task force bill. In 2020 and 2021, I filed a rural teacher shortage and loan forgiveness bill. None of the bills were moved forward to the Senate Education Committee, governed by a GOP majority.
When I met with Bisgard several months ago, he told me at the end of the last school year, about 50 teachers left the Linn-Mar school district. A handful were retiring, but many were “just done.”
Last fall, I was frustrated that the teacher shortage crisis seemed to be escalating and organized a group of interested legislators. We held roundtables in four eastern and northeastern Iowa school districts, Linn-Mar/Marion, West Delaware and Howard-Winneshiek, to listen firsthand and see just how dire the situation was becoming. I’ll share a little of what we heard.
A student attending Manchester’s West Delaware High School told us that roughly five teachers rotated in and out of just one class period — all to cover for the teacher shortage impacting their school.
We learned the spread of COVID-19 and the economy’s general lack of workers have combined to create an environment where teachers and support staff are asked to do more to cover the gaps due to the substitute teacher shortage, resulting in significantly less time for educators to prepare their curriculum.
“Many are working 12-hour days,” said St. Mary’s School principal, Kelley Harbach, who also spends her mornings teaching fifth grade due to the vacancies. The shortage is leading to what Kevin McDermott, a representative of the Iowa State Education Association, describes as a final straw for many to leave the profession.
Roundtable attendees often stated that things were bad enough to cause teachers to walk away from jobs they loved. Educators told us that they are continuously doing more tasks with less time, and they feel undervalued.
Why should our teachers feel undervalued and having to do more with less, at a time when anxiety and depression has doubled for youth during the pandemic? We all should be grateful to Iowa teachers who are taking on additional nurturing and counseling roles while helping kids to keep learning and advancing.
Administrators said low morale, exhaustion and stress are reported by teachers often and the problem is much worse than the public may perceive. It seems many people who no longer have children in school don’t realize the impact the teacher shortage has on our state.
Each two-hour roundtable meeting led to creative ways to immediately alleviate the crisis and solve long-term systemwide issues. Some solutions involved fixes around licensure requirements and salaries. Increased efficiencies in teacher training, upward mobility and promotion of the education profession were also on the table as possible answers.
Other ideas involved paying student teachers who are putting in long hours. Those student teachers leave at the end of the school day for another job, so they can pay credit hours for student-teaching college credits.
“Not only are student teachers paying tuition, they are paying to work full time,” said Dr. Kristen Rickey, superintendent of West Delaware Community School District.
Now it is 2022, and the Legislature has done little to solve this. State budgets have not kept up with rising costs or paying teachers their worth.
Recent rhetoric spoken by a GOP senator at the start of this year’s legislative session targeted teachers he says have a “sinister agenda.” A day later, I received an email from a veteran teacher of 20 years who was contemplating other work and said, “It is no mystery to me or my colleagues why we have a shortage of teachers and school staff. The abuse from the state is long-standing and predictable.”
Iowa’s hardworking teachers who have sacrificed so much the past few years deserve better. They deserve to be treated with fairness and respect — and be emotionally supported and properly supported financially.
At the end of our roundtable sessions, teachers, parents, students and administrators were grateful we had taken the time to listen to them. We currently are using their ideas and suggestions and will be working with legislators across the aisle for the benefit of our teachers and our children — our future depends on it.
State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, represents parts of Linn County.