116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A shortage of teachers, substitutes, paraeducators and other school staff is forcing educators to come up with creative ways to meet the needs of students and find more workers.
On the Iowa job board for schools, over 250 education job openings are posted in the Cedar Rapids area alone. Several Eastern Iowa educators say their districts are ramping up recruiting efforts amid a shrinking pool of possible applicants, enacting financial incentives or cutting into teacher prep time to maximize capacity.
To be sure, “kids are still doing great things, needs are being met and there are great adults showing up for them every day,” said Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush, who said that teachers indeed are “taxed” to make it happen.
There are just not enough of them — particularly in areas like teaching special education and advanced classes — and the ongoing shortage of substitute teachers has only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the Cedar Rapids district, some administrators, principals and classroom teachers are substitute teaching on top of their other responsibilities. John Rice, executive director of teaching and learning, for instance, substitute taught last month at Wilson Middle School. Some teachers are giving up their prep — time they get to prepare lessons, grade assignments and do other non-teaching tasks — to help cover a class if a substitute is not available for it.
Hoover Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kelly McMahon said she and her colleagues are “drowning.”
At a school board meeting last month, McMahon said there is an “urgency to meet the needs of students,” whose education has been interrupted for the last two years by the pandemic.
“We can’t do that without time to plan and target our instruction,” McMahon said. “I’m at school every weekend and taking stuff home with me every night.”
Tracy Ehlert has substitute taught at Hoover for the last three years, sometimes being “four teachers in a day.”
“I can’t split myself in half,” said Ehlert, also a Democratic state legislator. “There’s demand to be all over the building.”
Ehlert, a long-term substitute teacher for a second grade class from now until December, has observed Title 1 teachers — who work with students struggling academically — and English Language Learner teachers being pulled away from responsibilities to substitute. Even the principal and counselors are teaching this year, she said.
Ehlert hopes more people sign up to substitute teach soon.
“It can’t just be a body in a classroom,” she said. “Because of learning loss we’ve had, we absolutely need people coming in and moving education forward … and make a difference in these kids lives.”
Although Cedar Rapids schools pay teachers hourly when they substitute teach for other classrooms, Bush said the teachers need — and would prefer — their prep time.
With college enrollment in teaching programs down — and the lack of people going into the education profession, Bush points out, a “national epidemic” — Cedar Rapids this year launched an educational assistance program to create a way for school employees to become certified teachers. Participants must commit to teach in the district for a few years after they graduate.
“We absolutely need certified teachers,” Bush said. “We’re going to have to start thinking differently about how we make that happen.”
The program is for three years, and classes are once a week at the University of Dubuque satellite location in Cedar Rapids. Free child care is available through the university. Cedar Rapids school employees can be reimbursed up to $5,250 a year for the classes.
“They’re already a vetted employee, and we want them to be in our system,” Bush said.
The district also is offering jobs to student teachers — who are working under a licensed classroom teacher — after they graduate.
Shortages of teachers can be even more challenging for smaller school districts like Mount Vernon and Solon, which each serve about 1,500 K-12 students.
Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said the district is discussing ways to be “more aggressive” in its recruiting efforts, including hosting its own career fair.
“The continued pandemic does not help as we have seen our pool of recently retired teachers who serve as substitutes shrink,” Batenhorst said. “Others in the substitute teaching pool appear to be more cautious in accepting assignments and seem to pass up open jobs more frequently than they may have in the past.”
Solon Superintendent Davis Eidahl said the district is short three to five substitute teachers most days.
Last month, the district increased its pay rate for substitute teachers from $110 to $130 a day. If a substitute teacher teaches for 10 consecutive days, he or she earns $180 a day. This pay rate is more in line with neighboring districts, Eidahl said.
The district still is down a third grade teacher it wasn’t able to hire for this year, Eidahl said. This increased the four sections of third grade classes from around 20 students to 25 each.
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