Iowa faces teacher shortage
By Hialeah Bever
The COVID-19 pandemic, recent legislation, and low pay are the main contributors to a worsening teacher shortage in 2022. The National Education Association found that 55 percent of educators are leaving the field earlier than expected, and while Iowan legislators consider a variety of bills to tackle the lack of staff, teachers debate how sustainable the teaching profession is, and whether positions will stay empty in the following school years.
For decades there has been a multitude of issues and obligations that teachers have dealt with on a daily basis. From misbehaving students to grading papers, challenges were always expected when in the education profession. But in March of 2020, COVID-19 forced everyone into their homes, producing a whole new set of obstacles for teachers.
“We had to build the plane while we were flying it,” said social studies teacher, Cathy Ahrens. “Over and over and over again, another issue would come up. Not only were we dealing with our own little side of the world, but we then also had to [extend ourselves] to help [students] cope with the struggles they had on their side of the world.”
And while administrators might not have direct experience in front of a classroom, they have seen the struggle that educators go through.
“I don’t think the shortage is unique to Iowa; there are challenges that have been brought forth for schools to solve, especially with the pandemic. A shift has occurred, and I think that has been hard on teachers. The more and more that we ask them to do, the more that they take on. When you have the combination of pressure and stress, for not the highest amount of pay, it can cause some people to reevaluate what they wanted to do,” said Principal Robert Boley.
BHS teachers had only a week to prepare their online Canvas course before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, and dealing with the hassle of online classes and in-person students was one of the many stressors that teachers across Iowa faced during the pandemic.
And while COVID-19 continued on, new legislation brought immense changes to curriculum and classroom structure.
“When we have these new things that come about, I always try to take an approach of ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘What are the reasons this legislation was even proposed?’ those types of questions,” said Kristy Cleppe.
Among the legislation that was passed was Senate File 2198, which allows parents to pursue legal action against teachers who share “obscene” material in classrooms.
“I’ve been working in public schools since the 1992-1993 school year. So if there are some things that are different now, a piece of literature like ‘Tom Sawyer’ or ‘The Catcher In The Rye’—If those books were so bad, why did my generation grow up reading them? What changed?” said Boley.
Beyond reading materials, House File 802 made it illegal for educators to teach critical race theory in classrooms. The bill states that “divisive concepts” are not permitted, but it can be difficult to pin down the definition of the phrase.
“The legislation’s intent, I’m sure, is to address the fears that some parents have about our curriculum, that it might talk about racism as being a systemic problem in American society, and they feel uncomfortable about it,” said Ahrens. “I fear that some teachers will just avoid those topics that are very important to address.”
“I teach American Minorities, and we talk about historical things, and I have to be careful with wording so that I don’t put blame on any particular person,” said Christina Burroughs. “I personally haven’t changed my content, but I have had to change the way that I word things.”
The added rules and regulations can make teaching difficult, but the biggest blow to educators’ morale came from comments made by Senator Jake Chapman.
“One doesn't have to look far to see the sinister agenda occurring right before our eyes. The attack on our children is no longer hidden,” said Chapman, during a legislative session on Jan. 10, 2022.
“I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t have kids in the center of their hearts. There are times when students in this building get me before my own family does,” said dean of students Rachel Cuppy. “And every employee in here is like that, sometimes our needs and our kids’ needs come second to the children we teach.”
“It is disheartening, it makes you not want to pursue these avenues. And that sucks because you want to help your kids, you want to give them opportunities. For a political figure to come and say, ‘There are obviously bad intentions, they must have another plan.’ It really is disheartening. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, it makes you not want to better yourself in your profession,” said Burroughs. “I think we need to trust teachers to be the professionals that they are. All of us have an undergraduate degree, a lot of us have our masters. So, we are trained professionals and we aren’t here for malicious intent. We don’t get paid enough for that.”
For many young professionals looking into the education field, money can be the final nail in the coffin. Iowa is number 23 out of the 50 states when ranked by teacher’s pay.
“Teachers have to continue to go to school, and we have to pay for it. College is very expensive, it’s worth it, but it’s expensive. And then we don’t make very much money out of the gate,” said Cuppy.
“It’s not like I’m struggling, but I could definitely be a manager at Target for more money, I’ve looked into it,” said Burroughs.
“I never felt like we didn’t get paid enough until these last few years, I got to say. Because we do have a great schedule, great timed vacations and breaks,” said Ahrens. “I do wish there was more assistance for us to take those classes, I wish there was some more financial incentive for that sort of thing. But, I absolutely still think it is an enjoyable profession to get into.”
Whether educators encourage students to pursue a teaching career is mixed, especially within these last few years, in which the rate of college students entering the education field is at its lowest. The University of Iowa has reported a 1.3 percent decrease, while Iowa State University has seen a 3.5 percent drop.
“You have to be in it for the right reasons; you are never going to be extremely wealthy, but you are going to make connections with people. And I would say that that has been probably the most rewarding part of my career,” said Boley
“Unless things change, I don’t really encourage kids. I deter them,” said Burroughs. “I suggest alternatives. But, I don’t know. It’s just not a good time to be a teacher right now. It might be different by the time [the current generation gets] through college. Hopefully, we have some changes for the better, or if laws do get implemented [Iowan lawmakers] realize, ‘Hey, we don’t have any teachers. Maybe we should start changing things.’”
Hialeah Bever is a junior. This is second year
as a staff writer and first as news editor.