Support, career growth: Educators talk about what could solve teacher shortages

School systems across the country, including in the D.C. area, are trying to fill vacancies weeks, even days before classes start.

In Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia, school officials say 99% of open teacher positions are filled; in Montgomery County, Maryland, a small box on the lower right corner of the school system’s website provides a daily update on how many positions remain unfilled.

Christopher Morphew, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, who moderated a discussion on the teacher shortage Thursday, cited a survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals that said 73% of school leaders said staffing shortages were a problem at their schools in the past year.

Among the panelists was Alejandro Diasgranados, the 2021 Teacher of the Year in D.C.

On the barriers to teaching, Diasgranados, a teacher at Aiton Elementary School, said the Praxis exam — a test required for teacher certification in more than 40 states — is one obstacle for many teachers.

“I took the teacher certification exam seven times before I finally passed, which was not only expensive for a student coming right out of college, but also demoralizing,” Diasgranados said.

Nationally recognized for his work as an elementary school teacher, Diasgranados said those first stumbles made him question his abilities and whether he had chosen the right career.

Another issue teachers say is an issue, especially those who are new to the profession, is a sense of isolation.

“You may come in and see your co-workers in the morning and not speak to another adult for an entire day — for an entire year,” Diasgranados said.

And Diasgranados said the best source of professional development is often “right down the hallway,” in the form of another experienced teacher, who could assist a new teacher if given the time and opportunity.

Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City schools, agreed with Diasgranados on the need to provide time and space for teachers to collaborate in order to advance their own development.

Santelises said that she constantly hears from teachers that the best professional learning that they experience is with their colleagues.

The issue of pay is often the focus of discussions around the difficulty of filling teacher positions, but Diasgranados pointed out a different topic that often gnaws at teachers — a lack of respect for the profession.

Teachers, said Diasgranados, are professionals, similar to doctors, “we diagnose academic and social-emotional needs for each student, and provide each student with a plan and guidance to improve.”

Aiton, where Diasgranados teaches, has had high staff turnover rates in the past. However, last year, more teachers chose to stay.

“We’re coming back this year strong with a high rate of teachers returning just because of the environment that we work in and the leader that’s in front of us,” Diasgranados said, referring to Aiton Principal Malaika Golden.

Santelises agreed that principals and administrators play a critical role in keeping talent.

“There are schools in Baltimore City that ended the school year and none of their staff left; they all returned,” she said. “That’s is not just because everybody needed a paycheck. That’s because that leader is doing something at the school site to say that this is a professional community that you are part of and that we value you.”

“I am fortunate enough to work for a school leader who really empowers us, and pushes us to be better teachers, to be better educators,” Diasgranados said. “A good teaching environment and a good leader can keep teachers in school.”

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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