Kansas is currently facing a shortage of teachers and USD 475 is no exception to the rule.

According to USD 475 Assistant Superintendent Deb Gustafson, there are currently about 18 openings in the district despite the 118 new teachers who have joined the district this year. She said three of these vacancies are in elementary schools and 12 to 13 of them are on the secondary level.

The district could be short between 200 and 300 students this semester, so these vacancies may not hit as hard, according to Gustafson.

“Some of those are positions that we may not need to fill,” she said. “But it has been challenging finding candidates. We’re just like every other school district across the state and actually across the nation. This is not a challenge unique to USD 475 at all. Everybody is feeling the crunch.”

Gustafson said the district has a contingency plan in the event it cannot fill all of its vacancies.

“We have a contingency plan for every single vacancy that we have right now,” she said. “Whether elementary or secondary, our principals have developed contingency plans in case we are unable to hire those individuals.”

These range from long-term substitutes to student teachers to support teachers such as academic coaches and tutors who are already present in the building but who do not have their own classrooms, she said.

“We may have to move some of those people into classrooms until we’re able to find a viable replacement teacher,” Gustafson said.

She does not believe the teacher shortage is going away anytime soon.

“I think this is something that we’re going to experience for several years to come,” Gustafson said. “We’re going to have to get more and more creative in how we get teachers certified. We’re going to have to look more to the pipeline of individuals in other professions who want to get their teaching credentials and are interested in teaching. We’re going to have to work with the universities to streamline those opportunities.”

But according to Gustafson, during her time in USD 475, it has never been quite this difficult to fill teaching positions.

“I’ve never seen it quite this challenging,” she said.

Gustafson said this shortage is no surprise to longtime educators.

Over the last several years, the number of people graduating with degrees in education has dwindled. The district has had fewer and fewer student teachers every year, Gustafson said.

On top of that, the stress of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has driven many people away from education. Gustafson said the district lost teachers who resigned due to the stress of teaching during the pandemic.

“It’s been a challenge,” she said. “Our principals have worked diligently the entire summer recruiting, interviewing, reaching out to different universities, different employment fairs, doing whatever they could possible to find candidates because the candidates just weren’t there. But all in all, I still feel pretty confident that we’ll be in good shape come Aug. 11. I think we’ll have every classroom covered. And then when we start high school on Aug. 25, I feel very confident that we’ll have every classroom covered at the high school.”

According to Gustafson, there are many reasons behind the shortage, including poor pay for teachers across the country while classroom sizes and teacher responsibilities increase.

“Educators are expected to provide all the social and emotional learning for children as well as all of the educational needs of children,” she said. “We’re just called upon more and more to take on a lot of the different roles that in the past different entities used to take on. And there’s more and more accountability for academic performance — as there should be. Teachers are held to test scores and academic accountability and sometimes with all of the extenuating factors and situations that students find themselves in, sometimes it’s a challenge to get those results.”

Gustafson said the district worked to meet students’ needs and keep test scores elevated, but doing this could sometimes become stressful for educators.

“I just think that for some people, it just seems insurmountable that they would be able to be successful in that role,” she said. “I do think that’s contributing to fewer people going into education. And like I said, we’ve just got to figure out a way to turn that around because education’s the foundation of every other job. You can’t become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer — or anything — unless you’ve got a good, solid academic opportunity in your public education schooling.”

According to Gustafson, education has also suffered from poor public relations.

“In the news media, you tend to hear more of the negative aspects of teaching then you do all the positives and the perks of teaching,” she said.

While she said she doesn’t “get on the bandwagon” of believing teaching suffers because of negative portrayal in the media and popular culture, Gustafson does feel there is more negativity out there about the profession than positivity.

“Teachers work very hard and the bottom line is, teachers make differences in students’ lives,” she said. “It’s not administrators like me and school board members and everybody else. The people that are making an impact in a student’s life are the teachers. And it’s hard work, but they’re dedicated individuals and they perform near-miracles every single day. We probably don’t get enough of those stories out there.”

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