Someday, Angie Whitcomb would like to finish her license work to become a full-time teacher, but that’s not in the cards right now.
So in the meantime, the 38-year-old Corvallis resident substitutes as a classroom assistant, where her services are in constant demand.
“I have been working pretty much full time since the school year started,” Whitcomb said, adding that it was normal to get multiple offers for the same day.
Currently, she is working a six-week job at Sunrise Elementary School in Albany but continued to receive last-minute calls even after accepting.
Other districts call, too. “I’ve been asked for my number because we always need good subs,” she said.
School districts say the rebounding economy, coupled with a shortage of licensed teachers following years of layoffs, is taking a toll on districts statewide, siphoning off would-be educators to other jobs and causing districts to struggle to fill positions from classroom teachers to substitutes to bus drivers.
The Oregon Department of Education’s 2014-15 report card shows Oregon cut about 3,600 teaching jobs, a drop of about 11 percent, between the school years of 2008-09 and 2012-13 as the recession took full effect.
Students worrying about finding jobs after graduation and repaying student loans began turning away from teaching as a career option.
“We’re starting to come out of the worst teacher market in a generation, where for four or five or six years, fewer than half of the teachers that graduated from Oregon educator preparation programs were able to secure gainful employment as educators in our state,” said Mark Girod, dean of the College of Education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, one of the largest teaching preparation programs in Oregon.
“We went through a period where we had more unemployed licensed teachers in the state than we had employed licensed teachers, and that’s kind of a tough spot to be in.”
Karla Rockhold, academic adviser for the College of Education at Oregon State University, said a generation of students are “gun shy” about going into education.
“So many of them saw teachers they loved being laid off left and right,” she said. “It made them wary of the field in general.”
The situation is improving. Lawmakers gave the education budget a 9 percent increase in state funding this year. Most of it was meant to cover all-day kindergarten, but some districts received enough to start adding back to their ranks.
In 2014-15, the total number of full-time equivalent school employees went up by 5.34 percent to more than 63,000, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Each employee group increased in size, including counselors, library staff and educational assistants.
Oregon’s total labor force grew by 7,185 jobs in September, according to the state Employment Department. Of those, 3,300 came from the government sector, and most were in the category of local education.
Students are taking notice. Enrollment in OSU’s licensure programs, which had dropped from an average of 80 students to 30, is back up to prerecession levels and is expected to grow to 90 or perhaps 100 next year, Rockhold said. The same is true at WOU, which was down to half its usual enrollment but saw its program double last year.
But training takes time, and it may be a couple more years before the number of available licensed teachers back to what it was before the Great Recession of 2008. And in the meantime, waves of teachers with multiple years of experience continue to retire, a phenomenon some call the “Silver Tsunami,” Rockhold quipped.
“It’s sort of a perfect storm, where we don’t have enough to fill the need, and the need is huge,” she said.
Fewer unemployed teachers means fewer people in the substitute pool.
In Albany, the demand for classified substitutes, specifically classroom aides, is particularly strong right now, said Randy Lary, director of human resources for Greater Albany Public Schools. That makes people like Whitcomb extremely valuable.
Lary is also worried about the spring, when teachers themselves tend to be in shorter supply. Everyone’s more worn down by spring and that’s when the illnesses tend to hit the hardest — right when testing and activities are revving up to breakneck speed.
Julie Buchert, who teaches band at Memorial Middle School, said her school experienced a period this past February where so few substitutes were available that teachers were having to cover classes for their colleagues during their prep periods.
“I've been lucky enough to be able to find someone every time, but the subs I find are often pulled to cover for someone who didn't get a sub for part of the day,” she said. “This wreaks havoc in a classroom where you have to have someone supervising the kids and they can't leave their assigned students to cover someone else's students.”
“Last year in the spring it was the worst I had seen for teachers and classified,” agreed Lary, who has been human resources director for eight years and served in middle school administration for a decade before that. “We are bracing ourselves.”
The district is going out of its way to attend extra job fairs, working on developing relationships with universities that have teacher prep programs and sending people to talk to candidates at OSU, WOU, and even as far away as Fresno State.
“We have also had ongoing discussions with our own classified employees about how we can help support them in their quest to gain a teaching license, especially in hard-to-fill areas,” he said.
On Sept. 13, Greater Albany welcomed close to two dozen people to a substitute orientation meeting, passing around information on background checks and payroll paperwork and a handbook on general procedures.
With roughly 1,100 people to teach, drive, assist, keep records, maintain buildings and otherwise support more than 9,000 students, Greater Albany is the third-largest employer in Linn County, Lary told the applicants.
Every day, 100 or more of those employees might not be able to make it to work for one reason or another — illnesses, emergencies, training needs — but unlike a factory, there’s no way of slowing down production.
“Every morning, those kids show up there,” he said. “I will say it again: Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here. We need you, desperately.”
The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the licensing agency for all Oregon educators, has made some changes to help districts cope with the educator shortage.
Substitute teachers must have a commission-issued substitute teacher license. Previously licensed teachers are eligible for an Unrestricted Substitute Teacher License. For a Restricted Substitute Teacher License, assuming a district is willing to sponsor the licensee, all that’s needed are a bachelor’s degree, a successful background check and passage of the state’s Civil Rights test, along with miscellaneous fees and filed paperwork.
Last year, the commission adopted a temporary rule allowing restricted subs who have been sponsored by one district to sub in any other district as well, provided the assignment doesn’t last more than 10 days. Also, while limiting the first such license to one year, the agency changed renewals to a three-year term.
The change appears to be helping. Current numbers state Oregon has 4,150 substitute teachers licensed through the commission, said Trent J. Danowski, the agency’s deputy director.
“The overall trend in licensure data suggests an upward trend in the number of licensed substitute teachers in the state from 2015 to 2016,” he said, adding that it’s important to remember that certified teachers also can sub, which means even more people are available.
Districts used to use restricted subs only for the hardest slots to fill, such as special education or language classes. Lately, Lary said in his experience, they’ve had to be tapped for just about anything.
Lary said the commission also seems to have been more willing lately to approve restricted sub licenses, although the agency was not immediately available to confirm. Albany has just a couple of subs on restricted licenses who don’t have a background in education, although that’s never the preference, he said.
“That’s a tough way to go. These are people who didn’t have the coursework in teaching and pedagogy and classroom management, and also didn’t have the guided practice through student teaching experiences,” he said. “Just dumping one of these people into a classroom without much support is a tough road. It’s not really the best way for us to fill our openings.”
Angie Whitcomb agrees that’s the way it should be. She has plenty of classroom time, having subbed as an assistant in California as well as Oregon, and said that time is critical to a good experience, both for the students and the sub.
Classroom management is tough, and knowing some of the tricks of the trade can make all the difference, she said. Good subs know how to follow a lesson plan and communicate with various ages and abilities.
“Flexibility is also important as a sub because sometimes things don’t go as they’re supposed to,” Whitcomb said. “You kinda need to have Plan B in your back pocket.”
That said, Whitcomb said she’d like to see the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission make it even easier to get emergency credentials, so people like herself — ones who want to be teachers and have already dedicated themselves to the profession in various ways — can hold down a classroom full time.
Nobody is expecting a permanent solution to the educator shortage, however.
Teaching has never been an easy profession even in the best of times, and longtime educators say they see it getting tougher. Some potential teachers size up the challenges and simply change directions.
Jolene Hinrichsen of North Albany, who taught for 33 years and plans to substitute now that she's retired, said expectations are far higher than when she started.
"We not only educate kids and manage all that entails — create lessons, set up labs, make models and samples at a variety of levels in order to differentiate instruction for the wide range of talents and needs kids bring into the classroom, confer with colleagues, parents, and counselors, create scoring guides to assess our lessons, attend in-services to learn what standards our Legislature has passed that we must teach, and manage classrooms of 30 to 36 students who bring challenges of all sorts with them — we also provide for their personal and emotional needs, from buying them school supplies to making and taking them to eye appointments because their families are unable to do so," she said.
"I don't think everyone understands that there is both a science and an art to teaching. Perhaps, any adult can master the science behind a well-constructed lesson plan but the art is a way of finessing the moment-to-moment circumstances with a group of 30-plus little humans."
Even for educators who take the plunge, things simply change too fast — in terms of the economy, people’s perceptions and the education profession itself — to guarantee permanent stability in the workforce, WOU’s Girod said.
Jobs are available now, but everything from the coming election to the increasing costs of the Public Employees Retirement System could change the dynamics, he said.
“We could be in a situation where we’re laying off teachers again in this state,” he said. “Unfortunately, the children of Oregon are the pawns in this system.”