COVID-19 applies more pressure to Colorado’s teacher shortage

When Jerry Goings was the principal of Highlands Ranch High School, he drove an hour south to Colorado Springs for an early morning conversation over coffee with a math teacher he hoped to hire.

He knew he was competing with principals from across the state, even colleagues in his own school district, to attract a math teacher during Colorado’s teacher shortage. Meetings like these, on weekends and before and after school hours, were becoming increasingly common for Goings, who served as the principal for 10 years before retiring in 2015.

In recent years, school districts across the state have been struggling to fill teaching positions.

During the 2019-2020 school year, districts needed to hire more than 8,000 teachers and special services providers, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That was 13 percent of all teaching and 17 percent of all service provider positions in the state. When the school year began, 147 positions (or 2 percent) remained unfilled, and another 985 positions (14 percent) were filled through shortage mechanisms.

All of this was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost one year since the start of the pandemic, teachers are under more pressure than ever as classrooms have gone virtual and budgets have shrunk.

“COVID is going to impact budgets for the next two or three, probably four years,” Goings said.

That means the teacher shortage, which educators can trace directly to budget concerns, won’t easily be resolved.

Goings, the educational leadership program coordinator at Regis University’s Division of Education, said the education community has been bracing for the shortage for years as public education resources have become more limited.

Often, fewer resources translate to low salaries for teachers, making it harder for school districts to compete for educators, especially in specialized subjects, such as math and foreign languages. The shortage hits the state’s rural school districts particularly hard as they compete with metro areas for a dwindling pool of educators. And the stresses of the job create turnover, which poses a challenge to school districts as they struggle to retain teachers.

Despite the challenges, though, experts see a path forward to make sure teachers feel prepared for the challenge. Everyone — from faculty in teacher preparation programs to new teachers themselves — has a role to play.

1. Teacher prep programs should emphasize strong field experiences.

Carrie Maffoni, Regis University’s director of state and school partnerships, said it’s important for teacher preparation programs to ask: “Are we giving students enough of a diverse experience with those field hours to give them the overall lay of the land

For Goings, it’s that type of experience that can make or break outcomes for teachers-in-training. One way Regis is stepping in to strengthen experiences in the field is by identifying current teachers enrolled in educational leadership programs at the University who show potential for mentorship.

“We want to say, ‘Hey, we need to get this person set up as a cooperating teacher for a student teacher,’” he said.

Through strong support in the field, education students become encouraged to stick with their path and gain the types of experiences they might face later in their careers.

2. School leaders need to foster a strong induction process for new teachers.

Once teachers are finished with their training and ready to enter the classroom, school leaders have crucial work to accomplish during their first few years. Finding ways to support teachers is key.

In his years as a principal, Goings found that creative scheduling can help create support: “What if a brand-new teacher had one period off if they’re in middle school or high school and they worked with a teacher who also had release time?” he asked. That way, new teachers can work with an experienced peer to hone their classroom skills.

Goings also suggested putting fewer students in new teachers’ classrooms as they become more acclimated to managing a classroom.

3. New teachers should seek support.

In her work with new teachers, Maffoni always shares an important piece of advice: “You need to find a group of supportive colleagues or the one person you hang onto that kind of helps.”

As part of her role, Maffoni works with districts across the state to support, train and retain teachers. She often sees active relationship-building as a crucial way for new teachers to feel supported.

“Seek a building that has a strong instructional leader as a principal because that person helps grow everyone within the building,” Maffoni said.

Goings and Maffoni are confident that today’s educators will meet the challenge of the teacher shortage.

“I always have hope that the pendulum will swing back,” Goings said. “We have some really well-intended people in this profession that are pretty amazing. My hope is that educators that are passionate about it will continue to impact the system and impact the decision-makers around budget.”

Maffoni agreed.

“You have to remain hopeful. At the end of the day, education is the fabric of this country,” she said. “It’s a wickedly complex problem, but you have to keep striving and hoping. Children, families and communities are depending on educators.”

Are you ready to rise to the challenge of acting as an advocate, a resource and an inspiration for students and your colleagues alike? Explore opportunities to lead with a graduate degree in education from Regis University.