COVID-19 created shortages of all kinds across the world, including in different areas of labor in the U.S., such as retail, hospitality and the food industry. One area, in particular has been hit hard: teachers.

In Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS), there’s high demand for time off and leave from teachers, but not enough substitutes to fill all the requests, according to Jeremy Weaver, the director of human resources for HCPS.

Going into the 2022-23 school year, Weaver said HCPS was looking to fill roughly 50 teaching positions. While he didn’t share an exact number of spots that need to be filled now, the most in-need positions are substitutes, special education teachers and foreign language classes, he said.

Schools nationwide are facing harrowing teacher shortages and burnout, with a June 2022 Gallup poll reporting four in 10 U.S. teachers feel burnt out “always” or “very often.” In counties across Virginia, there’s been a decrease in the applicant pool — leaving rolls unfilled, or filled by under-qualified workers — and many other educators are finding higher-paying positions in different industries and fields. Not only are educators feeling the strain of shortages, but other positions in schools such as custodial staff and bus drivers are as well.

Weaver said leaving a current position for a different one, both within education and outside of the field, isn’t uncommon. Weaver said there are no easy jobs when working in a school and that no job should be overlooked.

“It is possible to find jobs that are not as taxing and can pay at least as much, if not more than, what they are making in a school setting,” Weaver said. “So for their own benefit, other jobs become competition for schools. Hours and flexibility are important in a job and in a school setting that is hard to come by, so other jobs are enticing in that sense.” 

Emma Phillips, a member of the HCPS School Board and a JMU alumna (’05), said each elementary school within the district has one full-time substitute in the building. In a recent School Board work session Jan. 17, Phillips said she heard from HCPS teachers about the need for substitutes and help within the classroom.

“One of the teachers shared with us that at her school, there were nine subs needed for the day,” Phillips said. “And I think a lot of times teachers get called in to cover other teachers’ classrooms and they lose time to do their own planning.”

Phillips said the shortage is exacerbating stress and other issues surrounding education that have been accumulating for a long time, such as limited time for planning, time off, and lack of resources. The pandemic created a narrative for teachers that has been difficult to uphold, she said.

“What we are hearing from teachers now is that they are drowning and they need help now,” Phillips said. “So for me, as a parent and an educator, I think it’s a matter of making sure our teachers are feeling heard and supported and that we are looking for solutions that will help to alleviate some of the pressure in the long run.”

Part of that may come as new teachers prepare to enter the workforce.

A sign of hope

JMU’s College of Education hosts a practicum program where students get field experience while working in a classroom setting. Students shared their experiences in the practicum program and how the recent shortage has impacted their goals and opinions on the profession.

Emmie Aiello, a junior elementary education major, said she often hears about some of the more negative aspects — like low income and burnout — of a career in education. This doesn’t rattle her though, she said, as she finds that her passion for working with children outweighs the downsides. 

“I often get asked by the teachers where I work if I am sure that I want to go into this and if I know that there isn’t much money involved,” Aiello said, “but I think that passion is what matters and that really having a positive outlook is better.”

Sarah McHugh, also a junior elementary education major, said the overall atmosphere and community surrounding the education program is more encouraging and team-based than anything of the other major programs she’s seen. The implementation of a practicum also gives a different feel to the major, she said. 

“Being able to actually go into the field and observe teachers who have been doing this for a while is really special, and the opportunity is so unique,” McHugh said. “All of the teachers want the best for us too which is a great feeling.”

Aiello completed her practicum in fall 2022 at Riverheads Elementary in Staunton, Virginia. She said that after facing these issues head-on and interacting with other students and teachers, she’s gaining new information and outlooks from those around her.

“It can be really difficult to go into the classroom knowing that there is stress behind the scenes for the host teacher, but seeing how [the host teacher] handles the class, handles herself, and the way that she encourages me is what inspires me throughout my classes,” Aiello said.

McHugh said that in her practicum classroom at Keister Elementary, the shortage emphasized the importance of flexibility. 

“With a shortage of teachers and substitutes, the school I was working with showed me that your day is never going to be the same and that you can’t go into the day knowing what to expect,” McHugh said.

Both Aiello and McHugh said shortages and teacher burnout are aspects of the career that they value and understand, especially now that they have had experience in a classroom setting. They said they hope their passion for their work will come across in all areas of the field.

While Aiello and McHugh have more time before they enter the post-grad world, seniors like Beatrice Bradner are coming up on the job hunt.

“Schools in the area have sent out so many emails encouraging us to apply to be substitutes and they have sent out emails encouraging us to stay in Harrisonburg and work here,” Bradner said. 

All three students who spoke to The Breeze mentioned that schools across Harrisonburg and Rockingham have tabled on JMU’s campus, providing information about applications and positions within schools. Bradner said some schools that have tabled are waiving application fees in an effort to get more students to apply. 

Working together

Bradner said that for her and other education majors, part of the initial appeal of JMU was the five-year master’s program. This program was available to students in universities across Virginia. In 2019, though, that program was disbanded in many universities by former Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D) to expedite students into educator roles to help alleviate the shortage. Students already in the program were to carry out the five-year plan, while students like Bradner missed out on starting the program altogether.

“So many of us were drawn to JMU because of the five-year program, and to get here and have it kind of taken out from under us was really hard,” Bradner said. “So I think that is the main impact that the shortage has had on my time as an education major and in my senior year especially, knowing that I don’t have the extra year to get more experience.”

Savannah Neale, a 2022 graduate of the master’s program at JMU, now works in Chesterfield County Virginia. Neale said her job search was much different than many others’ experiences.

“I was really lucky that I fell in love with the school where I did my student teaching and I was observed by the administration and was offered a job by the HR of the district,” Neale said. “As a first-year teacher, though, I was kind of scared of what I was seeing on social media and of people I know that are burnt out and leaving education.”

Both Phillips and Weaver said they’re impacted in their jobs by the students of JMU and their willingness to step up when needed.

“JMU students are fantastic. Every time I walk into a classroom and a JMU student is there, it’s so nice seeing their enthusiasm for working with students and for being in the classroom,” Phillips said. “I think that the collaboration between HCPS and JMU is a mutually beneficial one, and I know that our teachers are so appreciative of JMU students.

Weaver said the passion and drive of future educators and current students at JMU are inspiring to him as someone who’s spent much of their career in the field of education, having taken on various roles at different levels over the years.

“I never dreamed that our community could look the way it does and that I would get to interact with people from every corner of the world,” Weaver said. “That is something that I feel the education program at JMU is helping to build and encourage.”

Weaver also said that after speaking with students in the major, he’s excited for them as future teachers. He said they make him feel like HCPS can continue to meet the high standards and demands of education.

Contact Jane McConville at mcconvjx@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.