Nicole Felkins, president of the Hollister Elementary School Teacher Association, said teachers often cover classes for their colleagues because of a substitute teacher shortage. Photo by Noe Magaña.
Nicole Felkins, president of the Hollister Elementary School Teacher Association, said teachers often cover classes for their colleagues because of a substitute teacher shortage. Photo by Noe Magaña.

This article was written by BenitoLink intern Kinsey Canez

Hollister High School had 29 open teacher positions prior to the start of the 2022-23 school year. 

Keith Thorbahn, assistant superintendent of educational services at the San Benito County Office of Education, said many schools in the county are scrambling to hire teachers. 

“It is difficult to ensure that you’re fully staffed,” he said. “There are more openings, in some cases, than there are teachers available or applying for the positions. It is a factor here in this area.”

Some school districts have tried to address shortages through recruitment practices such as job fairs, teacher preparation programs and relationship building with nearby universities to bring in student teachers, but still have had a hard time attracting interested applicants.

In interviews, several human resource directors and teachers from schools across local districts said it has been especially difficult to hire math and science teachers. In addition, some districts are having trouble finding special education teachers. 

“They’re attempting to recruit more professionals into this area, but it’s not an easy switch; it’s not something that you can fix overnight,” Thorbahn said. “I don’t think there’s a lack of effort in attempting to recruit highly qualified teachers or highly qualified individuals into the education field.”

Public schools across the country are struggling to hire teachers. According to a survey released early this year by the National Education Association, 55% of U.S. public school educators are contemplating leaving the profession “earlier than they had planned.” Another national survey by EdWeek Research Center reported that nearly “three-fourths of public school principals said they are not receiving enough applications to fill open positions.”

The need for teachers is complicated and complex. Factors such as salary rates, location, and increased work responsibilities are fueling the shortage, and schools are suffering differently. 

Cindi Krokower, director of human resources at Hollister High School, said that in addition to receiving fewer applicants, there seems to be less interest to enter the field of education or relocate for a job. 

“During recruitment we find fewer individuals willing to move for employment than we have in the past,” Krokower said. “Applicants have shared their reluctance to come to Hollister due their worry about finding affordable housing.”

The district, which served 3,423 students in the 2021-22 school year, was able to fill all of its open teacher positions before the school year began. 

Anne Siri, human resources director for the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District, has noticed similar trends in her district. 

“I think it is particularly difficult here because we are more rural without a large city infrastructure,” she said. “It is also impacting our schools because we want to serve our students with fully credentialed teachers.”

Siri attributes the staffing shortage to change in curriculum standards, stress, low pay, and the shift in classroom environments since the pandemic. 

“Our young teachers are starting in a profession at less than $60,000 per year, which makes it very difficult to find adequate housing in this area,” she said. “I know some larger districts are starting to offer subsidized housing, which is difficult for a district our size to compete with.”

In the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District, which serves 1,017 students, Siri said there are 4 vacancies that still need to be filled. 

Robert Huneywell, a history teacher at Anzar High School and the vice president and chair of two departments in the Aromas-San Juan Teacher’s Association, said the teacher shortage predates the pandemic.

“While teachers have always fought for our proper wages, the people—both parents and government—have continued to ask more and more of them,” he said. 

In the years before the pandemic, staffing shortages forced teachers to take on even more tasks in their day-to-day schedule, he said. And while it’s been happening for decades, teacher responsibilities are increasingly onerous since the pandemic. 

“Distance learning showed who had the ability to handle this new phase and, unfortunately, accelerated retirements from those that said it was too much,” Huneywell said. “And now with ever-growing vacancies, the burden falls onto those who are still teaching.”

Sometimes, he added, when there are classes without a teacher, the students will be placed in other existing classes, creating more homework that needs to be graded and a greater likelihood of classroom management issues. And, since the pandemic, there is more pressure on teachers to help students regain skills they might have lost during distance learning. 

Huneywell said schools are left wondering how long they have until current teachers reach burn-out and no one is left to replace them. 

And the shortage goes beyond teachers. Classified support staff—bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers—are also urgently sought, as are substitute teachers. 

At Anzar, Huneywell has noticed that the two main groups of people who used to substitute regularly—retired teachers and recent graduates waiting for an open teaching position—have moved on. “Many are not eager to go into a cramped room with 30 other people who might have COVID,” he said. “Which further reduces our sub pool.”

Nicole Felkins, a seventh and eighth grade history teacher at Marguerite Maze Middle School and president of the Hollister Elementary School Teachers Association, has been in the Hollister School District for five years. This year, in addition to her history classes, she’s teaching art as an elective. 

Because of the substitute teacher shortage, Felkins said teachers often have to cover periods for their colleagues who are absent. 

“Administrators are scrambling to find subs in the district. And if they don’t find a sub, they ask teachers to sub during that prep period,” she said. “So then, that’s that one hour that you get, if you’re an introvert like me, to recharge your batteries, and instead you’re walking into a classroom. A sixth grade history teacher might be asked to sub during their prep period for an eight grade math teacher. I would be so out of my element.”

Even the schools that were able to fill teacher positions ahead of the current school year are anticipating the shortage of substitute teachers.

John Schilling, the principal of Southside Elementary School and the superintendent of Southside Elementary School District, only had to find a replacement for one part-time staff member, but said the biggest challenge will be “filling absences with substitute teachers. I think all the schools in the county struggle with this.”

Schilling isn’t alone in this view.

Jenny Bernosky, the principal of Spring Grove School and the superintendent of the North County Union School District, said that while all teacher positions have been filled and the school is fully staffed, she expects her school will be affected by the substitute teacher shortage when teachers are absent. 

To address this, some school districts are loosening some of their requirements and raising the pay for substitute teachers. 

In 2021, the San Benito High School District voted to raise the daily pay rate of $225 for substitute teachers. The Hollister School District raised the daily substitute teacher rate to $213 and waived the CBEST requirement for people with a bachelor’s degree. 

“The best we can hope for is enough to stay on and for new teachers to come in,” Huneywell said. “The worst? Well, let’s stay positive.”


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