For months, the country has been inundated with news of a nationwide teacher shortage. Reports of classes starting this fall with substitute teachers leading lessons and universities turning out fewer teachers than in years past have left many school districts and administrators wondering how they will overcome the shortage.
The situation isn't dire yet in San Luis Obispo County, but several of the eight major school districts have openings for teachers and support staff even after the start of fall classes. The county Office of Education is taking steps to stave off negative impacts to students, officials say.
"If you go on EdJoin, which is the (online) source for most teachers to go find jobs, you can see how many jobs we have in the county,” said county schools Superintendent James Brescia, as he pulled up education job posting website EdJoin.org on his iPad, and clicked on its location-based search option. "If you look at California alone, there are about 13,400 positions posted."
All of those positions are not certificated teaching positions. Some are for classified staff, such as teaching assistants, nurses and facilities workers. But narrowing down the search reveals some important insights into teaching in the county, he said.
"If you go to Atascadero, for example," Brescia said. "Atascadero is looking for an intro to sports medicine teacher, a speech and language pathologist — these are positions that are open right now, today, several weeks into the school year."
Most are positions that have been added as the districts look to replenish staff after layoffs during the recession or to fill jobs as baby boomers retire. Some districts are hiring because they’re growing or expanding instructional offerings and aren’t letting vital positions go unfilled.
"I'm not aware of someone saying, we don't have a third grade teacher, for example," he said. "However, the numbers are still changing. They may be doubling up, they may be waiting. We don’t know yet."
If the shortage situation continues unchecked, however, the impact on students will be felt, Brescia warned.
"If we are unsuccessful in recruiting and retaining teachers, we will have larger class sizes, because that will be the only other way to do it," he said.
The roots of the shortage
The challenge in filling open positions is a problem of too little supply and too much demand, Brescia said.
In 2000, the California State University system — the state’s largest supplier of teaching credentials — awarded 77,000 teaching credentials. Flash forward 15 years and one major recession later, and the number of credentials the system awarded is less than one-fifth of that.
“Last year it was 14,000 credentials,” said Brescia, who also teaches educational and administrative leadership at Cal Poly. “I use them as an example because they are the largest provider, not only in the state, but in the country.”
Brescia said fewer people have decided to pursue teaching credentials in recent years, following mass layoffs during the recession and numerous budget crises that changed the public’s perception of the profession as a secure career.
Central Coast New Tech High School English teacher Carly Smoot, who is in her first year of teaching, said she thinks part of the problem is that teaching has been devalued.
“I think the teacher shortage speaks to a broader social issue, that perhaps we aren’t valuing our teachers as much as we should,” she said. “It’s in the pay and the respect. Not as many people are going into the field because they could go into a tech field and be paid six figures in your first year. And teachers can sometimes have to work, you know, two other jobs just to get enough food onto their tables.”
Now most districts that struggled during the recession are rebounding, Brescia said, but the pool of teaching candidates has evaporated at the same time baby boomers continue to reach retirement age. The districts are in a tight spot, he said.
“It's a sellers' market,” Brescia said. “The buyers' market is in trouble right now. Anyone who has a teaching credential and wants to work in this county is pretty much working.”
San Luis Obispo County shortage
Not all districts will face the same recruiting problems, Brescia said.
More affluent districts like San Luis Coastal Unified School District are able to attract more candidates because they have more money to offer prospective teachers, he said. SLO Coastal is also helped by its proximity to Cal Poly and graduates of its credential program.
"Now San Luis Coastal, all the young kids want to live here," Brescia said. "I'm not sure if they are experiencing the same shortage that Shandon or San Miguel or Paso Robles would be experiencing. But San Luis Coastal is not typical of most of California or even our county."
SLO Coastal had no open teaching positions as of Tuesday, though it did have a vacancy for a certificated school psychologist.
Brescia said some North County districts, like Paso Robles, have harder times filling positions because they offer lower salaries and have more diverse student populations. Those areas also can be less attractive to young teachers who want to live in more urban areas, he said.
On Monday, Paso Robles Joint Unified School District had the most open teaching positions in the county, with 13 vacancies posted to EdJoin. These included openings for a high school social science teacher, middle and high school math teachers, bilingual elementary school teachers, a high school education specialist, an elementary music teacher, a part-time Spanish teacher, speech and language pathologists and substitutes.
Atascadero Unified School District had two part-time openings Tuesday: An introduction to sports medicine teacher and a speech and language pathologist.
Atascadero Unified human resources coordinator of certificated personnel Robin Merrill said the district has "been feeling the impacts of a teacher shortage, definitely."
"The number of new hires we've had this year and last has gone up, which I think is a new trend," she said, noting the district hired 49 teachers for the 2015-16 school year, and 54 for the 2014-15 year.
She said that it has been difficult to attract new hires to Atascadero to fill open positions from retiring educators, largely because most districts across the state have more money to spend on teachers now.
"The state budget is better," she said. "And that means more money for all of the schools. More money is coming in to implement things that we had previously not been able to. This is making it more competitive for hiring."
Lucia Mar, the county’s biggest district with 10,400 students in 18 schools, has hired about 89 teachers for this school year, slightly more than last year, said Charles Fiorentino, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. The new hires represent about 15 percent of the district’s 580 teachers.
Three elementary school teachers were hired just the week before the school year began Aug. 20, Fiorentino added.
On Tuesday, Lucia Mar had three open full-time speech and language pathologist openings and three behavior specialist openings, he said.
"If you look at the state, it's really rural areas and urban that are suffering," Fiorentino said. "We're considered suburban, and we've, in general, not seen problems filling positions, beside the usual. Speech and language, special education, math and science — those always are harder."
Fiorentino said that despite the openings, "we're fully staffed.”
Six mostly smaller districts had no job postings for teachers on Tuesday: San Miguel Joint Unified, Shandon Unified, Pleasant Valley Joint Unified and Templeton Unified in the North County, as well as Cayucos Elementary and Coast Unified along the coast. Some advertised for substitute teachers.
Outreach and retention
Though most local districts are not yet feeling the strain of a teacher shortage, Brescia said the county Office of Education has begun an extensive outreach effort to recruit and retain new teachers in the area.
The county requires all first- and second-year teachers to go through a mentorship program to help provide them with support in their first few years of teaching, which are typically the hardest. This year, about 175 teachers — 100 first-year and 75 second-year — are enrolled in its induction program, said Kelly Yungman, the county’s senior coordinator of teacher induction.
Brescia routinely speaks at Cal Poly to encourage students to pursue teaching, and his office has created a series of banners that will be displayed throughout the county to encourage people with degrees to consider substitute teaching.
The department also staffs a booth at the weekly Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo, passing out fliers and encouraging the older demographic to consider earning a credential.
"Frankly, there are a lot of people out there," Brescia said. "I think we need to show them how wonderful the profession is, what are the benefits, how they can give back. And we really need to work on recruiting, coming off of two years ago, where nobody had jobs, and now we're like, 'Please, come work for us.' "
A new teacher's perspective
On the first day of class on Aug. 20, teacher Carly Smoot sat at her desk as her eyes welled with tears.
"When you work so hard to prepare for a job and it's at your core, and then you finally get into it, it's surreal," said Smoot, who is one of the nearly 90 teachers hired for this school year by the Lucia Mar Unified School District.
Smoot, 27, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Cal Poly before receiving her teaching credential from its College of Education this past spring. Fresh out of the credential program, she was hired as a freshmen and sophomore English teacher at Central Coast New Tech High School in Nipomo.
“What is incredible about New Tech is that it’s progressive, they are trying to do new innovative things,” she said. "The first weeks have been the best weeks of my life and also some of the most challenging. It's hard. Harder than I even anticipated."
Teaching has always been her calling though, she said, from the time she was a kid watching her mom, a school nurse in Atascadero, come home each day filled with excitement about her students.
“That was a red flag for me," she said. "I started doing a lot of volunteer work, and realized that the most important job in the world is impacting people in a positive way."
Smoot also volunteers outside of the classroom, teaching language arts at juvenile detention facilities.
The profession and its commitments aren't easy, Smoot stressed, but they are rewarding.
“I’ve had concerns and fears and struggles going into teaching, and I still do,” she said. “But I try to be a better teacher for my students every day. And it’s a lot of work. But I knew so strongly that I wanted to mentor youth for a living, and I wanted to help them, so that always outweighed any hesitancies I might have had.”