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School principals get creative to keep their staff in the classrooms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Four years ago, COVID-19 sparked the biggest disruption in the history of America's K-12 schools. Recently, hundreds of principals came to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers to tell them what kind of help they still need. One problem kept coming up - staffing shortages.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: We have major shortages right now.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: I look at the teacher ed programs. They can't keep up with the need.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: It's the lack of candidates.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: People that I started teaching with in 2008 - I think my wife and I are the only ones still in the profession.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Cory Turner spoke with a bunch of these school leaders while they were in town.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: I know you're probably tired of hearing about shortages of teachers and bus drivers and cafeteria workers. I mean, they've been driving headlines for years now. And let me tell you. The dozen principals I sat down with are tired of them, too.

CHRIS BASTIAN: It's contract time, and 10 minutes ago, I got an email - found out my high school English teacher is not coming back. That's like a unicorn.

TURNER: Chris Bastian is an elementary school principal and the superintendent of a tiny North Dakota school district. Oh, and he sometimes drives the school bus.

BASTIAN: Luckily, I think, you know, driving big things is fun. So - you know, so it does help. But...

TURNER: In this way, North Dakota isn't so different from northern Illinois.

RAUL GASTON: DuPage is just outside of Chicago - so lots of applicant, big pool.

TURNER: At least that's the way it used to be. Many years ago, middle school principal Raul Gaston says he had over 400 people apply for a job he posted for a seventh-grade science teacher.

GASTON: When I had the same position open three years ago, I literally had 12 applicants. Only eight were actually qualified.

TURNER: What's the problem? Well, a few things. First, teacher supply hasn't been great because, principal Beth Houf in Jefferson City says, the pay is often so low.

BETH HOUF: Our starting salary in Missouri is $38,000.

TURNER: At least that's the minimum. And it would be even lower if it weren't for a special statewide grant program meant to boost pay.

HOUF: That's the huge reason why. You don't attract the best and brightest for $38,000.

TURNER: During the pandemic, the demand for teachers also went way up. Schools all over the country tried to help students recover from the pandemic by using federal relief dollars to create new jobs and hire more people, and that created a kind of frenzy in the teacher labor market.

MATT HANEY: I have a neighboring high school who had two math openings for two math positions.

TURNER: Matt Haney, a high school principal in Maine, said one of his fellow principals had to get really creative to fill those open jobs.

HANEY: And the principal couldn't find anyone. And he wound up at dinner with his wife one night, and the waitress was really engaging and doing a good job. He said, have you ever thought about being a teacher?

TURNER: She actually took the job, and Haney says she's doing OK. There's another problem with hiring these days. Teaching has gotten more stressful. Teacher surveys make clear student behaviors have been more challenging in recent years, and also, in many places, the politics around education aren't helping. Lucas Pugh leads a middle school in Tempe, Ariz.

LUCAS PUGH: Honestly, my teachers are tired of getting yelled at by people and disparaged and, you know, attacked and then - you know, for what?

TURNER: Middle school principal Suzan Harris in Georgia says she's tried to tune in to her teachers' needs beyond pay.

SUZAN HARRIS: Because gone are the days when I can say, you know what? If you want to go, go.

TURNER: That includes being more flexible with time off if they're caring for a family member.

HARRIS: So now I have to really and truly look at how I care for my teachers. And because we're being intentional about how we care for our teachers, we're seeing them wanting to stay.

TURNER: The good news-bad news of this story is that at least some of these supply shortages may soon be coming to an end. That's because the federal relief dollars that help drive up demand will be disappearing in the coming months, and some of the jobs they paid for will disappear with them. Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.