116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When second-year teacher Allison Ster left her job in March at Cedar Rapids’ Wilson Middle School, she was wracked with guilt over leaving her students — English language learners — before the end of the academic year.
But when she stepped into a new education-related job at Kirkwood Community College, she felt pure relief.
“I feel like an elephant has stepped off my whole entire body,” said Ster, 23. As a classroom educator, “I felt like I was drowning.”
The Cedar Rapids Community School District lost 126 teachers at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, up from 100 last year.
More than 20 certified school staff, including teachers, special education interventionists and nurses, had left before the school was over — far more than midyear losses in the past, said Linda Noggle, executive director of human resources and talent management for the district of about 16,000 students.
Iowa teachers already pay up to $1,000 to break their annual contracts, but starting July 1, the Cedar Rapids district won’t let teachers out of their contracts until there is a replacement, and even then will report the breach of contract to the Board of Educational Examiners.
“As you are aware, our district is in the middle of a teacher crisis, much like the rest of the nation,” Noggle wrote in a May 24 email to educators. “We are finding there are several challenges that are making it difficult to keep our staffing at the levels required to provide services for our students such as:
- Increased number of midyear resignations
- Continual resignations after July 1 and throughout the school year
- Increased yearlong leaves
- Lack of substitutes to cover vacancies
- Continued difficulty to fill vacancies throughout the school year“
The new Cedar Rapids policy is allowed under Iowa Code and similar procedures are being used in other districts, Noggle said.
Nationwide, the number of people leaving educational services, including teaching, has grown faster than any other industry, according to a November Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That agency reported 182,000 people quit their public education jobs in February 2022, compared with 138,000 in February 2021, Money reported last month.
A survey by Joblist found educators and health care workers were more likely than average to report the COVID-19 pandemic influenced their decision to quit.
But there are other factors in Iowa, including relatively low pay in some districts, criticism by lawmakers and parents and the burdens of working in understaffed schools, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, the union that represents Iowa’s K-12 educators.
“Last fall, of all our educators were looking forward to the year beginning, thinking it would be more of a return to normal,” said Beranek, a West Des Moines third- grade teacher released from duties to lead the union. “Turned out to be anything but normal.”
When asked why she left Wilson midyear, Ster said the number of students she worked with had increased; other teachers were not writing or implementing their own modifications for English Language Learners; and Ster felt like she couldn’t take a day off without overloading her colleagues.
“It wasn’t the kids,” Ster said.
A few weeks into the new job at Kirkwood, Ster had to schedule a doctor’s appointment to renew a prescription. She called her boss and got a few hours off for the appointment.
“If that would have happened when I was teaching, I would have had to put in for a sub, see if I get a sub and write lesson plans,” Ster said. “If I don’t get a sub, it’s my co-workers who have to give up their prep time. It has to be approved by my principal. I would feel bad that my co-workers were giving up their one 45-minute prep period to sub for me.”
The first two years are tough for new teachers, Beranek said.
“If we can keep educators for four to five years, they typically make a career of it,” he said.
But during the 2021-2022 school year, more new teachers left, more midcareer teachers decided to find other careers and more seasoned teachers took early retirement, he said.
Effect on students
Students who lose their teacher mid year “have significantly lower test score gains” than students whose teacher stays for the full year, according to a study published in 2020 in the journal Education Finance and Policy.
When teachers leave mid year it disrupts a child’s learning and breaks the trust developed between teacher and student, noted study authors Gary T. Henry, from the University of Delaware, and Christopher Redding, of the University of Florida.
These types of departures are more common in schools serving more students of color or with lower incomes, the study found.
When school districts can’t find enough teachers, they must choose between unappealing options. Some districts reduce course choices or offer a course with a substitute teacher who isn’t certified in the subject, Beranek said.
Zac Gavin, 21, a 2022 University of Iowa College of Education graduate, will teach science at Maquoketa High School in the fall. It’s his alma mater and the district where his mother, Jennifer Gavin, and sister, Liz Gavin, teach.
The school will have only two science teachers in the fall, when it usually has four, Zac Gavin said.
“In biology — we essentially have no choice — we hired a proctor who is going to sit in the room and watch the kids while they do it online,“ Gavin said. ”I think that’s tragic, but it’s just what we have to do.“
The person proctoring has a degree in biology and is working toward an education degree, Gavin said.
Fewer teachers often means larger class sizes, both for regular education and special education students, Beranek said.
“The population that needs more one-on-one or small group engagement is not able to receive, at times, the appropriate education because those educators are overworked and the numbers (of students) are so large,” he said.
District leaders said the main challenge in hiring more teachers is that fewer people are seeking the job.
“Most of our university candidates say there are less people entering the profession,” said Nick Proud, executive director of teaching and learning for the Iowa City Community School District, which has about 14,400 students.
However, the number of education graduates from Iowa’s three state universities — University of Northern Iowa, University of Iowa and Iowa State University — has been relatively flat over the past five years, averaging about 1,000 students per year among the schools.
The state licensed 2,153 new teachers in 2021, slightly lower than the nine-year average of 2,206. Five months into 2022, the state has issued 1,038 initial teacher licenses.
Particular classrooms, including science and special education, have always been difficult to fill, said Mark McDermott, associate dean for teacher education and student services in the UI College of Education. McDermott was a high school science teacher for 14 years before becoming a teacher educator.
“Elementary teaching had not been a shortage area, but we’ve noticed even in elementary education we’re getting calls from administrators looking for teachers,” he said. “Prior to two years ago, we very rarely got calls like that.”
The UI saw a 15 percent increase in education graduates between 2016-2017 and 2020-2021 and during that time increased enrollment of students of color from 5 to 14 percent.
Part of that increase was due to the state’s 2020 decision to no longer require an entrance exam for teacher preparation programs, McDermott said. The UI also has been working to connect more with high school and middle school students to get them to consider teaching as a career choice.
Some 2022 education majors got long-term substitute teaching gigs before they even graduated.
As a UNI education student, Megan Rex became a substitute paraeducator in 2020. When UNI had an eight-week winter break, she subbed at Oelwein Community School District, her hometown district.
This spring, Rex, 22, was doing her student teaching — the last step before graduation — when she got a text from Oelwein Middle School asking if she could do a long-term subbing job the last month of the school year.
“I was subbing in a social studies classroom,” said Rex, whose primary subject is math. “It’s not my strongest, but I’m also being asked to teach financial literacy which has math in it and a lot of real-world experience.”
Rex planned all the lessons and graded all the assignments.
“I’m 22 years old, but I’m the adult now,” she said.
She will teach eighth-grade math and algebra at West Liberty Middle School starting in August.
Gavin, the rookie Maquoketa science teacher, said having a parent who teaches has shown him how many hours go into the profession. He knows he will need to have coping strategies to get through challenging times.
“No matter what, I’ve got to find one thing per day, per class period I’m going to do well and have fun,” he said. “If I’m having fun, maybe that will rub off on the students. You have to enjoy what you’re doing or its going to get old fast.”
Iowa lawmakers this year considered bills to make it easier and faster to become a teacher. The only one that passed was House File 2081, which would eliminate the standardized test needed to get a teaching license. Gov. Kim Reynolds has not yet signed it.
Educator preparation leaders have warned against speeding up the process too much.
“We find the less preparation and less mentorship — essentially scaffolding to help the new teacher along — they are more likely to leave the profession in the first couple of years,” Benjamin Forsyth, UNI director of educator preparation, said in February.
Many school districts started “grow your own” programs in which they encourage people already working in the district to get additional training.
Cedar Rapids provides tuition assistance for paraeducators to become certified teachers; Iowa City gives teachers from underrepresented groups fellowships to consider administration.
“For our students, we are evaluating apprentice programs and other community programs that will provide a path for students to go into teaching and return to the Cedar Rapids Community School District after they receive their degree,” Noggle said.
To lure teachers in a competitive market, some districts are offering signing bonuses, such as $5,000 to stay at least two years, Beranek said. The Iowa City district has talked about switching to a four-day school week, which has been popular with teachers in some other Iowa districts.
A lot of teacher retention comes down to adequate funding for schools and respect for educators, Beranek said.
“The state has only allocated 2.5 percent in new money for our schools,” he said. This increase, half what was requested by Iowa Democrats, comes as inflation has boosted the cost of food and gas.
Some districts — Iowa City and Cedar Rapids included — pay in the mid-$40,000s for beginning teachers, but others still are paying the state minimum of $33,500.
“The private sector has increased wages to remain competitive,” Beranek said. “They are pulling from the public education system. That’s not just classroom teachers. It’s certified individuals who work as paraprofessionals or food and nutrition or custodians. The whole system is under stress of not having the appropriate individuals.”
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