Charlotte County not spared by national teacher shortage
Pamela Ayers has worked for the Charlotte County Public Schools for 27 years, and she is grateful for every day that she gets to walk into the classroom and build relationships with her students.
“Teaching for me is a calling, there's no doubt about it,” she said. “I love it but that doesn't mean that it's not extremely difficult.”
Ayers’ job has been made even harder by the teacher shortage that is impacting all of Florida. The Charlotte County district has about 40 teacher vacancies right now, according to Mike Riley, the school and communications officer. Some of those positions are being filled temporarily by substitutes and paraprofessionals, but teachers like Ayers also have been picking up the slack.
“I'm teaching seven classes out of seven,” Ayers said. “I gave up my planning period to teach a 10th grade English class just to fill the gap a little bit.”
Ayers is compensated for taking on this extra period, but she no longer has time set aside in the school day to work on lesson plans or grade assignments. She is one of the English Department’s Program Planners at Port Charlotte High School, so she and one other teacher must prepare the curriculum for English classes that don’t have teachers.
“The job that falls onto us is that we are writing lesson plans and doing grades for classes that we don't even have,” she said. “That amount of work that it creates, just with not having enough teachers, is tremendous.”
Tiffany Profita’s daughter is a junior at Port Charlotte High School. She said her daughter likes the school, but Profita believes her child’s education has suffered due to the lack of teachers.
“There are subs quite a bit,” she said. “I think it's a crisis right now.”
The situation in Charlotte County is a mirror of the rest of the state. In the Collier County public schools there are 15 elementary teaching vacancies and 74 secondary vacancies, according to Jennifer Kupiec, a communications specialist with the Collier district. There are more openings now than the district had this time last year. But Collier is trying to recruit.
“The district has worked hard to build competitive salaries and offer many paid supplemental opportunities, full board paid health insurance at no cost to the employee, and a pathway to grow within our organization,” Kupiec said.
Lee County public schools have 85 teacher vacancies and 38 classroom support openings, according to Robert Spicker, the assistant director of media relations and public information for the Lee district.
“There is not a county in this state that is not being affected, not just by teacher shortages but custodians, bus drivers, food service worker, everybody," Charlotte County School Board member Kim Amontree said. “It's one of the biggest problems that we're all facing right now.”
In Charlotte County there are about 80 vacancies for support roles like the ones Amontree described, according to communications officer Mike Riley. And what's more, Amontree said, substitute teachers are in short supply too..
A major contributor to these shortages is the shrinking number of people who are interested in joining the field.
“One challenge we face is the national decline in the number of students graduating from a traditional educational program,” Jennifer Kupiec of the Collier public schools said.
Charlotte teacher Pamela Ayers attributed this to reputation. She said that teaching is seen as a job where you will be overworked, under-respected and badly compensated.
“It doesn't help the situation when we have leaders in our state and leaders in our country who, in their rhetoric, denigrate the profession of teaching,” Amontree said. “You can't expect students to hear some of the things that our leaders say and want to be teachers right now.”
Poor wages are a major contributing factor to the shortage, but Amontree believes that Charlotte has done a good job at offering competitive wages for teachers. In 2019 she advocated for a referendum that bumped the starting salary for new teachers from $38,232 to $45,000. After the referendum passed, Charlotte went from being the lowest-paying district in the region to, for a short time, the highest.
“Although we raised our teacher pay tremendously, we need to do better on the insurance side,” she said. “So, that's something that we're working on.”
The public school district in Collier County provides health insurance at no cost to employees, while Charlotte’s insurance is deducted from the employee’s pay.
“We know there's a problem,” Charlotte board member Amontree said. “I feel like we are doing our best.”
There are bills in the Florida Senate right now that seek to address the shortage. Amontree supports House Bill 573, which authorizes the Department of Education to issue temporary certificates to specified military service members who meet certain criteria.
Another measure in the legislature right now is House Bill 1017. It directs districts to first determine which support positions are most severely understaffed, and then to fund incentives to recruit and retain employees in these “critical shortage” areas. The bill also requires districts to provide paraprofessionals with career development opportunities.
The Florida Education Association is asking Governor Ron DeSantis and the legislature to meet three goals: provide fair, competitive salaries that value experience, give highly qualified teachers the opportunity to earn multi-year contracts rather than face dismissal annually, and treat all education employees with the professional respect they deserve.
Teacher Pamela Ayers also spoke out against annual contracts. She has a multi-year contract that was grandfathered in, but she’s seen firsthand the pressure that annual evaluations put on teachers.
“The teachers that are on annual contract are required to do performance-based evaluations that are anchored to test scores,” she said. “And so, in some ways it is like holding a teacher accountable for a kid growing, getting taller over the course of the year. There are a lot of times as teachers we can control the instruction, but we can't always control the students.”
Normally vacancies drop as a school year progresses but this year the staff shortage has ballooned, according to a brief from the FEA. That group said in the brief that the shortage is worse than a year ago.
“There's a general lack of respect from the community and from the parents in general towards teachers, and that just adds to the burden,” Ayers said. “We have a lot of support at the district level, but I think in general from the state and from the community, we don’t have as much support, and it's really, really hard.”