As the bell rings at Casa Grande Union High School, more than seventy sophomores pile into Stacy Brady’s biology class.
The rural school district outside Phoenix can’t find enough certified teachers, especially for math and science, so 13 classes are being doubled, with several having more than 70 students. Some of those classes get a teaching assistant, but others rely on one teacher.
“It was very chaotic,” Brady said. “I wish I could clone myself because I can’t be with every child that needs help.”
Located between Phoenix and Tucson, Casa Grande has struggled to find teachers for years, hiring about 30 from the Philippines each year to fill the gap. But that alarming trend is reaching a more frightening point. Jennifer Kortsen, a district spokeswoman, says she has never seen such a shortage in her 29 years here.
“I have never had a school year start where we have had so many vacancies, and it’s really sad,” said Kortsen. “We’ve posted it, we’ve gone to job fairs, and there just aren’t any teachers available right now.”
After two years of facing pandemic health care, teacher loss, and tense public scrutiny, teacher burnout is on the rise nationwide.
Jennifer Zanardi just left her high school job in Palm Beach, Florida to become a corporate recruiter. She says that the relatively low salary was a big factor, but the political pressure and the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill were the turning point. She found herself working longer hours and walking on eggshells.
“The public actually said teachers were trying to indoctrinate students,” Zanardi said. “It affected my mental health and my stress in a huge way.”
Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is also falling, down 33% between 2010 and 2020 — a trend that has only intensified during the pandemic, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Schools are competing for a shrinking pool of teachers, and wealthier suburban districts are winning out over those with fewer resources, especially rural schools and those that support more low-income families and students of color.
“(Teachers) don’t go to the most disadvantaged schools,” said Chad Aldeman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “The same schools that struggled in 2019 will struggle even worse in 2022.”
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where there is a high concentration of poverty, at least 8 percent of the public school district’s teaching slots are vacant, more than twice as many as last year, according to the teachers union.
Dr. Donna Christy, the president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association, sees a scramble to fill the gap.
“It definitely feels like there’s been an exodus,” Christy said. “They leave the profession, but they also go to other districts. Where there is higher pay, where there are better working conditions, where they feel more supported, or they have heard that there is more support.”
Geva Hickman-Johnson, a middle school English teacher in Prince George’s County, just found out she has to prepare lessons for the new substitutes in her department. She also expects her class size to grow.
“It means my students might not get the best teacher this year,” Hickman-Johnson said. “I might not be at my best because I’m being pulled in so many different directions that I can’t really focus on the students I’m in front of every day. It’s hard.”
On top of teaching losses during the pandemic, many teachers across the country have also noticed disruptive behavior from students. At a time when many students need more attention, Christy fears they will receive less.
“They fell through the cracks before,” she said. “It’s going to be like opening the floodgates. It’s going to be really hard to keep up with our struggling students.”
Like many districts, Prince George’s County public schools are now scrambling to fill those empty classrooms, moving staff, raising pay for subs and combining classes when necessary.
States are getting creative to fill vacancies, although some of the plans are controversial. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is asking veterans without teaching degrees to lead classrooms.
“It was a slap in the face,” Jennifer Zanardi said. “If what you do doesn’t matter, your education doesn’t matter, anyone can do what you do. And that’s just not true. We’re professionals.”
Casa Grande Elementary School District is one of many that have moved to a 4-day week to retain staff — a strategy they say has helped keep several teachers.
The high school district is looking to hire more teachers from abroad. In some classrooms, paraeducators without subject matter expertise teach lessons prepared by certified teachers, such as Stacy Brady.
“I’m thinking about myself,” Brady said. “I struggle with math. And when I was in that classroom, I needed help, I had questions, I needed someone to break it down in a different way, and there was no one who had the content knowledge to to do that, I (would) quit. And I think a lot of our students might quit too.”
Brady expects to lead classes with 70-plus students most, if not all year. She fears that the teacher shortage in Casa Grande will only get worse.
“My biggest fear, I think, is that some kid is going to get hurt in some way, emotionally or physically,” she said. “And I can’t see it because there are so many students in the room.”