Fewer teachers puts area schools in bind

Schools usually finish hiring teachers for the upcoming year around the end of July.

This year, things didn’t go quite as smoothly.

Souhegan High School in Amherst filled its last teaching position the week before school started.

“That was particularly late,” Principal Scott Prescott said.

The Mascenic Regional district began the year with one technology position unfilled and one substitute in special needs.

“We did have some difficulty finding people,” Superintendent Leo Corriveau said.

In Bedford, where high school administrators faced the daunting task of adding staff for the school’s new grade 11, the last opening – in special education – wasn’t filled until Sept. 22, according to school board Chairman David Sacks.

Nashua schools had 12 open positions when the school year started, most of which were filled by the beginning of the month, Associate Superintendent Ed Hendry said.

It isn’t a dire situation by any means, but administrators say the problem is growing. With baby boomers retiring and a dearth of new teachers in math, special education and the physical sciences, schools are looking longer and harder for good teachers.

And it’s expected to get worse.

“There’s going to be huge numbers of people retiring,” Hendry said.

Many of them represent the best and the brightest, observed Amherst-Mont Vernon Superintendent Mary Athey Jennings.

“The baby boomers that are retiring included a huge group of highly qualified women who had no other alternatives in the 1960s, career-wise,” Jennings said. “So, you had women who were at the top of their graduating class going into teaching.”

In New Hampshire, there may be a spate of retirements next spring because after next year, the state will no longer pay the same health benefit to retiring teachers. The change, which was part of a larger reform of the state’s retirement system, would have taken place this year, but lawmakers pushed it back. Because of the uncertainty, some veteran educators opted to retire at the end of the last school year.

And the pool of college students studying to become teachers doesn’t seem large enough in all subjects to fill the breach.

“Teacher candidates are still

ementary education, English and social studies,” said Corriveau, the superintendent for Wilton, Lyndeborough and Mascenic, who also teaches classes at Plymouth State University. “But we just don’t see them in math and science.”

Those are among what the state department of education calls “critical shortage areas.”

“If we have an opening in elementary school, we’ll get a large number of applications, and we’ll have eight to 10 high-quality applicants from which to choose during the interview process,” Milford Superintendent Bob Suprenant said. “That number is at least cut in half for critical shortage positions such as math, science and special education.”

For critical shortage positions, the state allows schools to hire teachers who are still working toward certification.

Many schools are taking advantage of that option. Other strategies include starting their hiring processes earlier.

“Advertise early, be on the front end of the hiring season,” Prescott said. “That’s what we have to do. Otherwise, we get into a bind.”

Souhegan and other schools also use student teachers from local colleges and universities, who often become good job candidates.

But if the applicant pool keeps dwindling, eventually, it may not be enough to compete harder for new teachers.

One solution may be to change the retirement laws so that those who retire from teaching can still teach part-time, Jennings suggested.

Or, schools could hire more people retiring from the private sector who are ready for a second career.

“I see a small but steadily growing trend of people who’ve had other careers coming into teaching,” said Susan Hodgdon, superintendent of the Hollis/Brookline School District.

But a private-sector expert isn’t always a great fit for teaching, Corriveau noted.

“They may have the knowledge, but they may not have all the other tools,” Corriveau said. “The teacher candidates coming out of colleges are more successful than those coming out of the private sector.”

The best solution would be to convince more college students to choose teaching as a profession, Corriveau said.

Hendry, of the Nashua school system, agreed that more new teachers are needed.

“That’s why it’s important to have competitive salaries and attractive working environments,” Hendry said.

But some administrators worry that new accountability pressures have done the opposite, making the job less enjoyable.

“Over the last five years, with No Child Left Behind, things have changed; there’s more accountability,” Corriveau said. “They are teaching test content a lot, so the artistry of teaching is becoming more of a science around accountability, and for some teachers, that takes the joy out of teaching.”

Prescott believes a cultural shift toward valuing teachers more could help attract qualified people to the profession.

“Salaries are important, but it can’t be just about compensation,” Prescott said. “It’s also about honoring the work that teachers do and making it seen as a valued profession. And I’m not saying people don’t do that already, but that’s one answer.”

Either way, in uncertain economic times, pursuing a career as a high school physics teacher, for example, might be a good idea, Corriveau suggested.

“We need to get the word out that for those who go into teaching” certain subjects, “there’s a job waiting for you,” Corriveau said.