“It was very soon after I started here that I was told a position had opened up at Beatrice Middle School, where I taught and I love Beatrice schools,” Stara said.
What kept her awake at night was choosing between job offers from two school districts she loved – Beatrice and Fairbury.
“I had to make this decision: ‘I’ve only been here a few weeks, am I going to go somewhere else?’ And then I was like, ‘Do I want to miss Beatrice?’ It was really, really stressful.
After weeks of thinking about the decision, she chose to return to Beatrice. A shorter route to Lincoln ultimately motivated his decision.
The deficit is expected to widen
The large amount of open jobs in education reflects a similar exodus of teachers that is happening across the country. Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the labor shortage could widen in the next school year.
“About eight or nine years ago we were looking at about 120 to 170 unfilled positions, which means they weren’t being filled by the right qualified staff. Fast forward to just before the pandemic, we were seeing up to 300 unfilled positions,” Blomstedt said.
Blomstedt said the last 2021-2022 school year racked up 482 unfilled positions. 68 remained vacant.
“It will actually be a little more than double what it was the year before,” Blomstedt said.
The biggest education gap is for special education teachers. As of fall 2021, at least 86 special education positions were not filled with properly trained staff. Eight state positions remained vacant. Language arts and elementary education are the other least filled positions.
Blomstedt said the entire education system needs to be looked at to attract more teachers across the state. The commissioner pointed to a bill — LB 1218, or Teach in Nebraska Today Act — that recently passed the state legislature. It would provide financial aid and student loan forgiveness to teachers.
Blomstedt said while health care and education pension benefits are generally robust for state jobs, young teachers are looking for a pay raise.
“For people who are fresh out of college, they need these income supports, and hopefully we can find ways [for] additional income for teachers – instead of having a different summer job outside of education,” Blomstedt said.
Even before she graduated, Stara heard a handful of warnings – the main one being the lack of pay.
Nebraska’s new teacher salary ranks 47th in the nation at $36,491, according to the National Education Association. The state ranks 31st in overall average salary when it comes to teacher compensation.
“It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll be able to handle the students.’ It was more like, well, you know, you’re not going to make a lot of money,” Stara said.
It was a recurring warning from others about the profession.
“There are people who say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll get into something else,’ but there’s nothing else I could see myself doing,” Stara said.
Dr. Mark Reid, dean of education at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, knows that feeling. Thirty years ago, he taught science in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
“One of the discussions I had often with my colleagues was that we felt like this was a mission for us. It was a call for us, to help try to prepare these young people for their lives ” , said Reid. “And these opportunities to work with these young people, to see these light bulb moments when they suddenly get it – I think it’s just an incredible opportunity.
Reid said teachers should definitely feel valued in their pay.
The UNK Dean has spent years researching and working on retaining teachers in Texas classrooms. The Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Legislature, and colleges in Nebraska are all trying to make it easier and more attractive for people to become teachers. However, Reid said there also needed to be more emphasis on keeping teachers, like Miss Stara, to leave the workforce in just a few years.
“Let me be perfectly frank, teaching is a challenging and challenging profession. There’s no doubt, it’s a business where the lights go on at 7:30 a.m., 8 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m. You will have a short break during your stay and hopefully some time for lunch,” Reid said.
It’s common to see teachers leave their careers three to five years after they started, but according to his research, salary isn’t the main reason teachers leave.
“A very good school community”
A big push comes from stress and lack of support.
“If they have a good foundation, if they receive a good education, they will be there for a long time, they will stay there for five years and more. And that’s what we need to make sure we continue to support our schools,” Reid said.
Sherri Jones agrees. She directs the College of Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the state’s largest university. UNK and UNL graduated 159 education students each semester, matching their graduation averages.
“We are producing the same number of teachers today as we were seven years ago,” Jones said.
She would like to see school districts expand resources to teachers, especially those who are just beginning their school journey.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to try a variety of things. Perhaps we could ask the teachers what would be useful to them and be very attentive to what they could tell us, ”said the dean of the UNL.
Jones believes the need for appreciation doesn’t stop inside the school walls.
“What we need is ever-increasing support and perspective that values teachers and the work they do. They are great. They are important. They just have a tremendous amount of knowledge about development and learning,” Jones said. “I would like to see our communities really supporting teachers. They are our most valuable profession. No one becomes anything without a teacher.