Hannah newman stapling infographics to her school wall.
Hannah Newman, a new middle school math teacher in USD 259, prepares her classroom for the start of the school year. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Beacon)

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Teacher shortages fueled by retirements and teacher burnout continue to plague school districts across the country. Wichita Public Schools began the 2022-23 school year on Aug. 15 short 100 teachers. That represents about 2.5% of all positions, better than the statewide vacancy rate of 4%.

The causes of the shortage are baby-boomer retirement, increased stress due to COVID and teachers leaving for better pay in other professions, said Randy Watson, Kansas education commissioner. Current and former teachers also cite burnout as a problem.

Solving the shortage problem depends on whether first-year teachers like Hannah Newman can sustain their enthusiasm. Newman will teach math at Wichita’s Marshall Middle School. Math teachers are among the highest in demand, along with science and special ed. She received a phone call from the principal who offered her the job while driving home from her interview.

Newman started her teaching career right out of high school as a paraprofessional, helping to  support teachers with larger classroom sizes, but her dream started long before that.

“My best friend had asked my mom, ‘Did you see Hannah’s becoming a teacher?’ And my mom said ‘Of course! She’s been dreaming of it since she was in elementary,’” said Newman. Last week she was busy decorating her classroom with fairy lights and colorful posters.

Wichita teacher shortage and burnout

New young teachers from Generation Z report the highest level of job engagement at 40%, according to the 2022 Kansas Educator Engagement and Retention Study conducted by Emporia State University. The second highest engagement rate is among boomer teachers, but those are the ones retiring. In the middle, millennial teachers — those with four to 11 years’ experience —  report the lowest levels of engagement and highest likelihood to leave the profession; burnout is cited as the cause.

Wichita Public Schools has 216 first-year teachers in classrooms this year, and slightly more than 10 percent are expected to leave after the first year. On average, the district sees around 25 new teachers leave annually. About seven of those go to another district while a similar number say they are leaving teaching altogether; the rest give other reasons. 

A report by the RAND Corp. shows that teachers across the nation on average experience more stress than other types of jobs. The report examined the mental well-being of teachers across the U.S. in 2021. It found 72 percent of teachers experience frequent job stress — twice the rate of American workers overall. The most common reason teachers felt stress was not being able to meet educational goals for students. 

Teacher pay contributes to burnout

Teachers also said the best way to get them to stay in their positions is to increase their pay.

Watson said a low unemployment rate in Kansas is driving salaries in other professions higher than the average teacher pay in Kansas. Teacher pay is determined by individual school districts, Watson said. On average USD 259 pays its teachers roughly $53,000 a year and administrative staff $101,000 a year. 

It was purpose, not pay, that drew Newman to teaching. Newman was inspired by teachers in her life to really love learning, and she wanted to pass that on. She had to pay for college mostly on her own. For the first two years of college, Newman worked full time as a para while taking classes at Wichita State University Tech.

One her favorite Wichita Public Schools teachers, Cathy Mong, pushed Newman to persevere and get the job she wanted. “I wanted to do something that I could care about, something with a purpose,” Newman said. “I actually looked for [Mong] during [staff] orientation, and there she was in the hall waiting for me.”

Why teachers leave Wichita

Sean Hudspeth, human resources director of Wichita Public Schools, said that the most common reasons teachers give for leaving USD 259 are retirement, leaving the state or leaving teaching altogether.

Vernette Chance, a retired Wichita Public Schools teacher who continues to substitute teach in USD 259, believes safety and classroom environment also pushed teachers to retire or leave. She sees many teachers leaving for different professions, such as real estate or starting a small business, to escape what she calls the strict and stale mood of present-day classrooms. Chance said the ongoing pandemic also drives older teachers to retire. 

“Not only is it COVID but I have friends who have cancer. And you get out of the classroom so you can survive longer,” Chance said.

Hudspeth says the shortage isn’t much different from staff shortages in other industries or what other school districts are seeing across the nation. He also said their employment numbers are fairly good. 

In the fall of 2021, the school district had 80 teaching vacancies and 152 paraprofessional vacancies. In April 2022, there were 113 teaching and 101 paraprofessional vacancies. Vacancies now hover around 100.

Newman has always wanted to be a teacher. Now, she has a classroom of her own. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Beacon)

Public perspective of teachers

Sara Smith, a second grade teacher in Haysville, believes that burnout has increased in the past couple of years for a few reasons.

“I think the recent bout of teacher burnout came from COVID because we were having to spend more money and time with the classroom instead of with our families,” Smith said. “That, added with there is a lot of parent uproar. Like, you can see it online. They think we are doing stuff to their kids that we frankly are not doing. There is just a lot of distrust, for whatever reason, in educators today.”

Chance agrees. She saw a complete shift in how people saw teachers at the beginning of the pandemic versus now. “In the beginning it was, ‘Oh, teachers are so wonderful and they’re working so hard,’ and then a year later they are throwing rocks at us.”

However, the school that hired Newman has been very supportive, she said. She was happy to find her new principal adamant about teachers having a work-life balance, a luxury she says not all teachers have available.

“I am so happy I got a position here. You know how sometimes when you are the new kid it can be awkward? That’s not how it’s been. Everyone has been super nice,” Newman said.

But she does have burnout on her mind.

“I have been talking to other teachers, not just the ones that work here, on how they deal with it,” Newman said. The advice she’s been given is to not  be afraid to ask for help and to identify a support system of family and friends you can lean on when needed.

What is being done and what can improve

USD 259 is also trying to tackle teacher stress and burnout through programs that listen to teachers’ needs. The district has increased “staying interviews” that survey teachers on what the district can do to help their educators. These are done throughout the school year and are given to all teachers, not just those who leave.

Smith, who has been teaching for four years, thinks that more support should be given to teachers by the state and by local school districts. “I absolutely think that there is more that could be done. These laws come from people that don’t go into classrooms but think they know what goes on inside a classroom,” Smith said. “Like, the stuff they do and try to do helps, I guess, but they can absolutely do more.”

Watson, the education commissioner, said that the shortage may soon be over.  “The good news is that it appears that in our teacher readiness programs, numbers have rebounded in the last couple of years,” Watson said.

State universities that have teacher programs saw an increase in student enrollment for sophomores and juniors in 2021. There have also been state efforts to address the shortage. The Kansas State Board of Education extended the relaxed requirements to get a substitute teaching license until October. The state board also created a path for retired teachers to renew their licenses without any expense to them other than a background check.

“I think the last couple of years have certainly taken their toll but I think we are seeing a rebound now,” Hudspeth said.

Chance is skeptical of the program for retired teachers to renew their licenses. She personally would not go back to teaching full time. The retired teacher says it’s nothing like how teaching used to be when she left in 2005 and especially different to teaching in 1995. She believes schools rely too heavily on structured programming instead of allowing teachers to teach.

“They see a problem, and what do they do? They go buy a silver bullet, a program. It lasts maybe three years or five years and at the end of it, what did you get?” Chance said. “I don’t know. They get a program instead of trusting teachers.”

As for Newman, she says she’s excited to get teaching. Her advice for new teachers is to not get caught up in the negatives.

“I know when I first started I let the negative comments get to me. You can’t do that right now,” Newman said.

Wichita Public Schools is hosting a job fair on Tuesday, Aug. 23, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center. 

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Trace Salzbrenner

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.