‘Stronger than I think it ever was.’ An invigorated professional community is helping educators contend with staff shortages and other ongoing challenges

By Sarah Earle

A middle school science team collaborates on their upcoming lessons. Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

If you had to pick a metaphor to describe the 2021-22 school year so far, it might be hats. Educators these days are wearing a lot of them. 

At Newport High School, the band teacher is stepping in to teach physics. In the Weare School District, Superintendent Jacqueline Coe took a turn subbing in classrooms last month. Principals around the state say they’re routinely covering classes, and teachers are giving up planning periods to fill in where needed.

Just as they did in the early days of the pandemic, school leaders, teachers, and staff are rising to meet the challenges of an unusual school year: helping students readjust to in-person learning, evaluating and addressing students’ needs, and trying to rebuild a sense of community, all amid widespread staff shortages.

The hardships are real, but in the 18 months since COVID-19 struck, a strong and growing support system has developed.

“The professional community has become so much stronger than I think it ever was,” said Bridey Bellemare, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Association of School Principals. “Conversations used to be mostly siloed in districts. Now those silos have been broken down and we’re having these deep, rich conversations about how to support educators, how to support families.” 

Stretched thin

Two months into the new school year, many teacher and support staff positions remain unfilled. Burnout, COVID concerns, and the broader realities of the tight job market are some of the key factors, while other factors are years in the making.

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Tight budgets, a perennial problem for some districts, were made tighter by the pandemic, and shortfalls weren’t fully addressed in the state budget. Schools with little bargaining power for hiring are left with few options.

We’ve been barebones since the get-go,” David Levesque, principal of Pleasant Street Elementary School in Laconia, told his colleagues during a meeting of Lakes Region elementary school principals earlier this month. “We cannot find subs so we have teachers covering for other teachers. (Consequently) we’ve had days when we’ve not had any music, art or P.E.”

“We’ve had to scramble,” said Brendan Minnihan, superintendent of the Newport School District, where there were at least 13 openings for paraprofessionals alone heading into the second month of school. “You do the best you can. You move people around.”

Along with compounding the pressures on district and school leaders and staff, the shortages have had a ripple effect across the school community. When school leaders have to cover classes, for example, they worry about student and parent needs that arise while they’re away, Bellemare said. And when trusted staff members depart, important relationships can be lost. 

Support staff positions such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals, substitutes, and administrative assistants are proving especially difficult to fill this year, even in districts that don’t normally have trouble. “What we really need to do is start addressing some issues in our pay scale,” said Dean Cascadden, Superintendent of the Bow School School District, which is still trying to fill several support staff positions. 

Administrative turnover is also unusually high this year as well, Bellemare said, creating a domino effect of vacancies around the state.

The effect of all this on morale is palpable. “My worry is I’m hearing from people in the field that they’re already at burnout level,” Bellemare said.

Sharing their struggles, supporting their staff

To combat burnout, school leaders are leaning on each other and looking for ways to support their overworked staff. Meeting over Zoom earlier this month, about a dozen Lakes Region elementary school principals discussed the challenges they’ve faced due to staff shortages and shared strategies for boosting morale.

Several said they had planned special events to express appreciation for staff and provide them opportunities to unwind. 

Levesque, for example, hosted an optional Coffee & Conversation event and an after-school cornhole tournament for his staff this month. “It was just, ‘take your tie off and let’s go jam and play cornhole,’” he said.

Other principals shared simple ideas such as seasonal themed parties and guided meditation events.

Ben Hill, principal of Belmont Elementary School, said one change his school has made is pulling special events into in-school hours or professional development days. That way, teachers and staff don’t have to choose between down time with their colleagues and getting home to their families.

Alton Central School Principal John MacArthur, who is writing his dissertation on support for school principals, said it’s important to him during this stressful period to carefully guard his family time. At the same time, he understands the value of being with other educators who are facing similar challenges. “Meetings like these are very therapeutic,” he said.

In all likelihood, educators will continue wearing new and different hats in the months to come. But as they craft a strong support network and find small moments to celebrate together, those hats may fit just a little bit better. 

Read more:

‘You do what you’ve got to do.’ As budgets and funding bills unfold, a look behind the ledgers

Lessons Learned: Assessing the successes and challenges of remote learning and preparing for the uncertain path ahead

Complex equations: Districts brace for pandemic’s economic fallout

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