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Opinion | Michigan’s substitute teacher shortage hurts kids, says Up North supt.

Louis Steigerwald

While Lansing dithers in getting around to putting a (hopefully) winning budget together, schools continue to struggle to find quality teachers to lead classrooms. The decisions, or lack thereof, made in the Capitol have real world outcomes on children in Michigan’s schools.

The challenges being faced by Michigan’s public school districts have not dawned upon us suddenly. They have long been studied and forecast —several times over. Michigan residents should be incensed that lawmakers have failed, for many years running, to come up with a plan to improve funding for Michigan’s schools.

Right now, especially for districts located outside large cities, there is essentially no pool of available and desirable teaching candidates. This holds true for pretty much every discipline and content area from elementary teachers to teachers in the arts and sciences. Special education? Forget about it. There hasn’t been an adequate supply of special education teachers for I can’t remember how long.

What is happening in many districts is that schools that can afford it are poaching teachers from nearby districts. Obviously this fills a vacancy in one place while creating one in another. The donor districts are typically small districts that already have trouble filling vacancies.  

What are schools doing when they have no desirable applicants for a position? The first thing most schools will do is look to see if there is a recently retired teacher in the area who might want to help. Sometimes that works. Next, schools look to their reliable subs to see if one of them might want to fill in until a replacement can be found. This speaks to the next problem.

Because graduating students with education degrees are being hired as soon as they graduate (and sometimes before), there is virtually no pool of substitute teachers. When recently surveyed, 100 percent of superintendents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula responded that they cannot find the substitute teachers they need on a day-to-day basis. This has led to schools counting themselves as “lucky” if they can find someone, anyone, to fill a chronic vacancy on a consistent basis.

If schools cannot find a substitute, the next choice becomes placing students in online courses. I’ve been around for a long while now. Some students do well in an online environment. Most do not. No online course can replace an excellent teacher in the classroom.

The core problem in all of this is a very basic economic one. The marketplace of potential teachers entering college is saying “No” to teaching as a profession. This is due to wages and benefits for teachers having long lagged behind other degree-requiring fields. Today’s graduates are exiting college with thousands of dollars in student loans. The pay in education does not allow them to enter into their professional lives and meet their needs or aspirations.  

One might think that the party that sees itself as the party of business would understand this very simple economic reality. Instead, schools get told to do more with less. So long as Lansing politicians believe less means classrooms with fewer and fewer qualified teachers in them, they are getting exactly what they are budgeting for. So long as Michigan parents want their kids to receive the best education possible, though, they should be angry with politicians who continue to ignore real answers for what troubles Michigan’s children and schools.

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