Staffing shortage, COVID-19, politics take toll on Pennsylvania teachers

What’s at stake if educator challenges go unaddressed?

By: - Sunday March 20, 2022 6:30 am

Staffing shortage, COVID-19, politics take toll on Pennsylvania teachers

What’s at stake if educator challenges go unaddressed?

By: - 6:30 am

(Photo by John Altdorfer for the Capital-Star)

(Photo by John Altdorfer for the Capital-Star)

When Becky Cibulka retired from the classroom last year, the West Mifflin Area School District lost more than a teacher.

The district lost a Spanish/ESL teacher, department head, social media manager, club advisor, and school-to-work program coordinator.

Education wasn’t the same as when the 41-year-old started teaching almost 20 years ago.

Still, her decision to leave didn’t come easy or without guilt.

It was a slow burn that started with voluntarily taking on additional roles, helping as a marching band assistant, planning service projects, and overseeing the Spanish club. Being involved in the community — where Cibulka grew up and still lives — was a chance to build relationships with students, parents, and alumni.

Eventually, her responsibilities expanded.

“I like being busy. I like always having things to do. That was never a problem for me,” Cibulka told the Capital-Star. “But I think what ended up happening was that I was very involved. And as time went on, there was no reward for it, not that I was looking for some reward. A thank you would be nice, but the more that I did, the more I felt they started to pile on to me.”

When the coronavirus shut down schools nationwide in March 2020, districts scrambled to adjust teaching methods to ensure students could continue learning safely. Some schools continued to offer meal services and provided technology resources to fill the gaps that traditional school operations addressed naturally.

Although buildings are currently open, a national staffing crisis has presented new challenges. Teachers have sacrificed their preparation periods and lunch breaks to cover for their colleagues, often in spaces consolidated to accommodate limited resources and larger classes.

“With the staffing crisis at the level that it is right now, our folks in the schools just can’t perform all those duties, and the students are not getting the one-on-one attention they need,” Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey told the Capital-Star.

And during a year when everyone had hoped for somewhat of a return to normalcy, students are acting out and dealing with learning gaps. Ahead of the 2021-22 academic year, community members lashed out at school boards about health and safety plans. And parents, motivated by misconceptions about what’s taught — or not — in the classroom, have left teachers feeling like they’re under fire from every angle.

For years, Pennsylvania has seen a decline in graduates entering the education field. Now, some teachers are considering leaving the profession sooner than they initially planned.

“People are just overwhelmed,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “I can see the frustration.”

‘Customer service has no place in education’

Fewer students were taking Spanish last year, so Cibulka, who earned a master’s degree in human resources, was put in charge of the school-to-work program, an opportunity for kids to work while also receiving a grade.

Because she managed social media for the Spanish club, the district had her teach a course on it. Cibulka’s role later expanded to include running the high school’s Facebook, Instagram, and eventually, TikTok accounts, a responsibility she called a “24/7 job.”

“I was teaching different levels of Spanish, doing the school-to-work program, running social media accounts, teaching a class, which was brand new, never done before, so it was a lot,” she said.

Becky Cibulka, a former West Mifflin Area School teacher, poses for a portrait on Monday, March 14, 2022.
(Photo by John Altdorfer for the Capital-Star)

Cibulka found herself driving to school earlier and earlier. When the district shifted its schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was usually at work by 6 a.m. to use copiers, print papers, and prepare.

“I found that the earlier I got there, the less people came to me to get information,” she said, adding that she would usually go home around 4:30 p.m. but continued to answer emails from students with questions or parents with concerns.

The first indication where “things started to take a downturn” was in 2015 when Cibulka resigned as a marching band assistant and applied to graduate school. She stepped down not because of problems with students but with parents “causing silly issues.”

“Teaching was not the way it was when I first started teaching. There was more of a customer service aspect to teaching than there ever was,” Cibulka — who previously worked summers at an amusement park in customer service — said. “Customer service has no place in education. We’re professionals. The parents should not dictate what the teachers can and can’t do. And I was starting to get the feeling that that’s the direction education was heading.”

When the district hired a new superintendent the summer of 2020 before the first full pandemic academic year, it was a turning point for Cibulka. She had an opportunity for a new job at a hospitality company, and teachers with at least 16 years of experience had an early retirement option.

Cibulka, who had taught in the district for 15 years as of last year, asked her union, without naming her, to see if the school would grant the retirement incentive despite being one year short of the requirement.

West Mifflin administrators agreed.

“I was happy they were going to let me take it, but at the same time, that really showed me that they weren’t thinking about how much I would contribute or who it was,” Cibulka said, explaining that the more years teachers worked in the district, the more they made. “With everything extra that I did, a lot of it I didn’t get paid for, but that’s all that really mattered in the grand scheme of things, how much money they would save.”

She doesn’t want to discourage anyone from going into education. But Cibulka said anyone considering becoming a teacher needs to know the realities of the job.

“Things aren’t getting better. If anything, they are getting worse,” said Cibulka, who still keeps in touch with her former colleagues predicting more teachers will end up leaving and taking retirement incentives. “And a lot of them probably won’t be replaced.”

‘An unprecedented level of strain’

The educator shortage is at an “unprecedented level of strain,” Askey said, with teachers and support staff stretched for time and resources.

In a recent survey by the National Education Association, which represents nearly 3 million educators, 99 percent of respondents reported burnout — an occupational phenomenon caused by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy, as defined by the World Health Organization — as a “serious problem.”

Fifty-five percent said they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.

“Stop and think about that,” Askey told the Capital-Star. “What would we do if half our teachers left the profession at the end of this school year?” 

Since 2010, Pennsylvania has seen a 66 percent decline in Instructional I teaching certificates, the state’s most basic teaching accreditation awarded to graduates who pass their certification tests, issued to in-state graduates. Data from the Department of Education also reflect a 58 percent decline in certificates issued to those planning to work out-of-state.

“This is not sustainable,” Askey said during a February Senate Democratic Policy Committee meeting on school staff shortages.

Williams said the General Assembly should focus on recruitment and retention efforts to start addressing the “multi-faceted problem.”

Ahead of this year’s budget negotiations, legislative Democrats formally launched a push for the most significant funding allocation for Pennsylvania’s public schools in state history. Their blueprint would allocate $3.75 billion for education, staffing, and classroom resources.

In his final budget proposal, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — who campaigned on education reform — again called for raising the minimum teacher salary to $45,000 per year. The term-limited governor also proposed measures to keep and retain quality school staff.

“We are not graduating enough educators, especially diverse educators,” Williams told the Capital-Star. “We’re talking about teachers of color and teachers that look like our students. We’re not graduating near what we need to fill retirements and other people who leave the profession.”

Late last year, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill that provided temporary relief with added flexibility to requirements for substitute teachers. Wolf signed the legislation, which expires after the 2022-23 academic year.

At the time, Askey praised the bill and called it a step toward solving the shortage by expanding the eligibility pool. But it’s not a permanent solution, he said.

Data from the Department of State show that the average annual salary for a classroom teacher in Pennsylvania is $71,478, with salaries ranging from $39,000 to $104,000. Numbers from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association show that daily substitute teachers were paid on average $105 per day during the 2020-21 school year.

The most frequent pay rate for substitutes was $100, and the minimum reported rate was $78 per day. The maximum pay rate was $160, according to a PSBA survey of Pennsylvania public school districts, with 462 respondents reporting a daily rate.

Askey added that teacher and substitute salaries need to be increased. He also urged lawmakers to find ways to address educators’ student debt by making tuition more affordable and by cutting costs associated with certification tests and fees for additional credits and professional development.

Left unaddressed, Askey predicted larger class sizes and course cuts, with the students ultimately being the ones “short-changed.”

“You’re not going to have the wide array of subjects available to our students,’’ Askey said of what’s at stake. “Our students are not going to have the opportunities that they need.”

Recounting a conversation with a school-based therapist in her district, Williams said the federal pause on student loan payments was the only reason a constituent could stay in the profession.

“If that hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay in,” Williams said. 

Williams has announced plans for two bills that would forgive student debt for school-based mental health professionals and provide internship stipends to school nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

‘Those little things build up’

Adam McCormick, a 39-year-old high school English teacher in the Scranton School District, loves his job, but “the profession weighs a little more these days,” he told the Capital-Star.

“I definitely feel more exhausted day-to-day than I have in the past,” McCormick said.

The problems existed before the pandemic, but the health crisis compounded challenges as districts had to adjust and address issues at a faster pace, he said.

Adam McCormick, a high school English teacher in the Scranton School District, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.
(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for the Capital-Star)

When McCormick outlined challenges caused by the staffing shortage to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee last month, he asked administrators to coordinate a schedule, so he could still teach and not “tax the already tight schedules of my colleagues and students.”

Under “normal circumstances,” he would have taken a professional day to appear before lawmakers.

“You can always go to them if you need additional help,” McCormick said of building-level administrators. “But even they’re limited in their ability to provide some of that additional help.”

From meeting statewide standardized testing requirements to taking on responsibilities outside their daily job — such as holding breakfast in homeroom like Scranton middle school teachers do — McCormick said teachers have “been expected to do more with less.”

“And that has become a burden,” he said. “Those little things build up. Instead of taking that time to get your day together and do any last-minute things you need to do, you’re looking out to make sure that everybody gets what they need as far as their breakfast. When I was growing up, that just wasn’t the case.”

McCormick said working with kids is the easiest and best part of the job, especially after more than a year of digital instruction and limited contact with students.

Erin, a 43-year-old special education teacher in Blair County, hasn’t left the profession yet. But she’s feeling the impacts of the staffing shortage and an increased caseload.

“It’s not that I hate my job. I don’t hate my job. It’s just that my job is very stressful, and our job duties just keep increasing,” Erin, who asked to be identified by her first name so she could speak candidly, told the Capital-Star. “I also try to serve as a role model for our new teachers, so we don’t leave them.”

The Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee holds a virtual hearing on the school staff shortage on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Screenshot)

With students and teachers returning to the classroom, Erin hoped for a sense of normalcy. However, student behavior and their attitudes are worse, she said, guessing time away from in-person learning contributed to the shift.

In a 53-page report released by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy last year, the nation’s top physician warned that young people were facing “devastating” mental health effects tied to the pandemic, which uprooted their lives and isolated them from peers.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled among young people, Murthy wrote. He added that negative emotions, impulsivity, and irritability increased among adolescents.

Last year, Erin provided services for almost 290 students. Although this year’s demand has declined to 71 students, her department has seen special education teachers pulled to cover other classes. She recognizes that the school has to work with available resources but added that “it takes away from the students who need a specialist or when their co-teachers aren’t in the classroom.”

Even when work is “chaotic,” and she feels like she has nothing left to give, Erin said the kids have ultimately kept her in the classroom.

“You have those moments,” she said. “They say this thing or that thing, and you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s awesome.’ You have these warm and heartwarming moments.”

Both educators said they consider themselves burned out, and while they still think teaching is an admirable profession, they recognize that it’s not for everyone.

“It’s a fairly thankless job,” McCormick said. “You have to intrinsically feel that motivation and reward because you’re not going to get it from many people outside … if they’re looking to make money, this may not be the right thing to do. But if they’re looking to make a difference in somebody’s life, I don’t think there’s any job better.”

‘We’re being burned’

Ask Shanna Danielson, a 35-year-old middle school band director in Adams County, about teacher burnout, and she’ll say: “We’re not burning out; we’re being burned.”

Danielson, who is in her 10th year of teaching and her first at a new school, said she has “never had to endure a climate like this.” She’s witnessed a group of “rowdy” parents shout at new teachers to take their masks off — and booing them when they declined — during a meet-and-greet with new staff members.

“You feel like every single thing you do is being watched,” she said.

Shanna Danielson, a middle school band director in Adams County, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.
(Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)

Educators have faced criticism for enforcing COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. They’ve also been at the center of a culture war, with false claims about the college concept Critical Race Theory, all while just trying to do their jobs.

Last fall, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a GOP-penned bill that would require Pennsylvania schools to make all instructional materials, techniques, and syllabi publicly available. Wolf vetoed the legislation, calling it a “thinly veiled attempt to restrict instruction and censor content reflecting various cultures, identities, and experiences.”

Legislative Democrats argued the bill would fuel debates over Critical Race Theory, which is not taught in K-12 schools. Williams described the legislation as a “distraction from actually addressing the real issues that are happening in schools.”

She added: “Every time I talk to students, every time I talk to educators, they talk about mental health. How can we get more mental health staff in the classroom? How do we get services that are more responsive to what students need? How do we get those services to educators?”

Danielson admits that she sometimes wonders why she continues to go to work each day.

But she has never questioned why she went into teaching — “because there’s nothing like the moment when you help somebody figure something out that they couldn’t do before, and they get that spark in their eyes.”

And she will never discourage someone interested from becoming a teacher. If she did, the current crisis would only get worse.

“I just want to get to a point where we don’t have to keep trying to make it better,” Danielson said. “It’s just better.”

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