The constant struggle to hire teachers is not unique to Decatur City Schools, with systems statewide cobbling together class schedules around vacant teaching positions.
Alabama’s public colleges and universities graduated 1,817 education majors in 2020, a 25% drop since 2013, according to information from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. There’s been a comparable drop in the output of educators with master’s degrees. And that doesn’t mean those graduates actually went into Alabama classrooms.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, the Senate education budget committee chairman, was in the crowd recently when Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas said educators need more respect.
“We’ve got parents telling kids not to go into education,” Douglas said at his State of Education address Nov. 9. “They’re not getting paid enough, the workload is too hectic and they’re not being respected.”
Orr, R-Decatur, said his takeaway from Douglas was that the quality of education careers has declined in the last 20 years, and was made worse by COVID.
“I think compensation plays a role, but it’s not the end-all-be-all,” Orr said. Relieving teachers of some of the paperwork and bureaucracy they have to handle could be an improvement, he said.
At Winston County High School, Principal Jeffery Cole has recently begged and, in one case, stolen from another system to put qualified teachers in front of his about 250 students.
About a year ago, a math teacher with more than 30 years of experience said that between COVID-19 concerns and a new learning platform educators were required to learn, she was done.
“I ended up begging a former math teacher to come finish out the year with me, then I spent the summer looking for a new math teacher,” Cole said.
In early February, a beloved and talented science teacher died of COVID-19.
“It’s almost impossible to hire in the middle of the year,” Cole said. He was able to call on a friend who is a retired science teacher to come in on short notice and teach the rest of the year.
In the meantime, Cole said he only got a few applicants for either job.
In September, one of the school’s history teachers took an administration job. He had two applicants, but neither worked out.
“I stole someone from Huntsville,” Cole said. “They’d been here before and I called and begged and they came back because they have family in the area.”
Cole and his wife, Dianna Cole, who retired after 30 years in the classroom, are Winston County natives, examples of home grown educators.
Two counties to the south, Cole’s daughter is a 12th grade counselor in Tuscaloosa.
Candace Young graduated with an education degree from the University of Alabama in 2014 and was among the first groups of teachers to enter the profession under Tier II retirement benefits. Under Tier II, new teachers can’t collect retirement until age 62. Teachers hired before 2013 could retire after 30 years, regardless of age.
“I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a teacher,” Young said recently. She said before she graduated, she was aware of the change in benefits between what her parents earned and what she’ll receive.
“I definitely knew it was going to be different,” Young said. “But I also kind of felt like there wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t going to change my mind about what I wanted to do because of that.”
At Carbon Hill Elementary and Junior High in Walker County, Principal Jami Rainey needs more teachers. He’s had three open positions for about a month, two special education and math.
“I’ve had zero applicants,” Rainey said. “… I need education to be more enticing for people to go into.”
Cole and Rainey are competing against other states and local systems for that limited pool of educators. They’re also up against the other professions for people skilled in math and sciences.
“I need teachers who want to be here, instead of thinking about going somewhere else,” Rainey said. “I need teachers to feel appreciated and want to stick around, because right now, they’re looking at other options.”
Because he can’t find enough qualified teachers, in kindergarten Rainey has hired auxiliary teachers — they don’t have four-year degrees, but some are working on it — to help certified teachers and have another adult in the room.
He uses substitute teachers, but there’s a shortage of them, too.
Like other administrators, he regularly puzzles together schedules with the teachers he has, putting them in more classes for less instructional time.
Young was 22 when she took her first teaching job eight years ago with four decades between her and retirement.
“I love counseling and it’s something I can see myself doing for a long time,” Young said about her current job. “But that’s also looking at 32 more years. I’m not even 32 years old yet. So I cannot really imagine what all is going to happen in my life in the next 32 years, to know whether that’s going to be a feasible option for me to stay in this profession for that long right now. …
“We’re talking about an amount of time that I haven’t even lived yet.”