“Can you imagine having 14,000 teachers across the state who don’t really have what is necessary to teach and they are teaching your kid?” asked Deana Mack, chairwoman for the education department at Waynesburg University.
She’s referring to the number of emergency permits the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) issued in the 2017-18 school year.
“A Pennsylvania public school entity, also known as a Local Education Agency (LEA), requests an emergency permit to fill a vacant position when it is unable to find a fully qualified and properly certified educator holding a valid and active certificate,” PDE’s website states.
This need stems from a series of factors, including changes in policy, such as special education certifications, and a decrease in college students pursuing education degrees, which led to a statewide shortage of teachers in Pennsylvania.
The good news for Greene County is, even though the school districts have felt the effects of this shortage, the situation isn’t as drastic as in other regions. In fact, only one school district might have to resort to requesting an emergency permit.
“In the past, we’ve not had too much difficulty finding and hiring teachers, but this year I am faced with hiring two special education teachers and I am having a difficult time finding them,” said Rich Pekar, superintendent for Southeastern Greene School District.
Both Carmichaels Area and Jefferson-Morgan school districts reported no issues hiring qualified teachers in the area, but Southeastern Greene ran into a policy issue. The PDE split special education certifications into Pre-K through grade 8 and grades 7-12. Pekar said he found teachers for the younger students, but encountered a lack of qualified candidates for grades 7-12. Pekar is searching for candidates in West Virginia that meet all the requirements for grades 7-12 special education teachers and if he can’t find someone he said he may have to resort to an emergency permit.
Luckily for Pekar and other superintendents with similar issues, that problem should remedy itself.
According to Mack, PDE will soon issue Pre K-12 special education certificates again after separating certifications into the two categories in 2008. So when it comes time for Waynesburg University’s 2019 freshman and sophomore classes to graduate they will already have that qualification.
The need for special education seems to be on the rise, with many school district representatives mentioning they hired teachers for the upcoming school year to fill the demand. Mack said the trend can be seen across the board.
“I think that schools are realizing that they need to do more and, honestly, they end up saving money in the end by having quality people who can teach these programs within their districts because then they don’t have to bus them and pay tuition to specialized schools that are miles and miles and miles from their home districts,” Mack said.
The 2018-19 school year was a tough one for Central Greene School District when 25 teachers were furloughed, but three of the teachers were called back for 2019-20, and the district was able to find candidates for other vacancies that opened up due to retirement.
“Although we did not have a plethora of candidates from which to choose, we did have viable candidates and were able to narrow it down to candidates whom we believe will be of value to our students,” Superintendent Helen McCracken said.
The decrease in teacher applicants was felt across Greene County. Jefferson-Morgan School District Superintendent Joe Orr said there was a shrink in the pool of applicants but maintained that those who sent résumés are high-level candidates.
“We went through a bunch of hiring this summer and don’t think we got the volume of applicants that we normally get,” said Fred Morecraft, superintendent for Carmichaels Area School District. “We’ve had positions where maybe five or six applied [but] we haven’t had it to where none are applying either.”
There seems to be an agreement across the school districts that specialty areas such as languages and science are among the toughest subjects to fill positions for.
Carmichaels, for example, offers an online French class because the district was unable to fill a position after a teacher left years ago. Pekar said Southeastern Greene recruited a foreign language teacher from West Virginia to teach foreign language after having a hard time finding local candidates. Jed Hamberger, K-12 Academic Director for West Greene School District, said his district had an agricultural mechanization position open for two years until they were able to find someone this past year.
“Specialty area teachers are typically always a little bit more difficult to fill just because of the requirement of a special certification. If you’re going to have a physical education or English teacher opening, we’re probably going to see large numbers of candidates,” Orr said. “If I’m going to have an opening in a foreign language like Spanish or French or biology or physics, then I’m definitely not going to see a large pool of candidates.”
Good news for local school officials, there might be more teachers on the way.
The idea that teachers would have to move far from home to get a job might have led to families discouraging their children to go into the education field, but Mack said that isn’t true. People are not aware that school districts are in so much need of new hires and substitutes. So there is a large chance they won’t be even moving to a different county after graduation.
“I think that students have been told for so long, ‘you’ll never get a job in PA’, that even though the numbers have decreased, there’s this stigma that you’re going to have to go and teach in Alaska to get a position,” Mack said. “I can tell you that when I’ve done visitation seminars this summer for students coming in, I’ve seen a look on parents’ faces when I told them how short staffed we are in the state of Pennsylvania and it’s a look of shock. They are surprised to find that we actually need teachers because it’s been so long since we’ve needed the numbers that we need now.”
According to PDE, the number of undergraduate education majors across the United States has decreased 55% since 1996 and many universities in Pennsylvania have downsized or discontinued some of their offerings. However, if the present situation seems grim, Mack is hopeful for the future.
The numbers at Waynesburg University didn’t get as low as some other institutions, but that doesn’t make the fact that its 2019-20 freshman enrollment increased less of a reason to celebrate. Moreover, its graduating students have had no issues getting hired.
“We get the message out there that we have good quality teachers from Waynesburg and they’re getting hired,” Mack said. “And I think that reputation is what is allowing us to continue to offer our programs and not be as hurt as other universities are that are eliminating their programs.”