By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
The 2022-23 school year started with an issue: There aren’t enough teachers to meet the educational needs of children nation-wide. In other words, there is a great imbalance between the number of students and teachers in public schools.
This reality also extends to the state that, according to the Florida Department of Education, will begin the school year with 9,000 vacancies for teachers and staff, while the Miami-Dade school district announced a few weeks ago that it will do so with 475 .
“These numbers are not going to improve much by the time classes resume,” says the President of the Florida Education Association (FEA), Andrew Spar, who also states there are almost 6,000 vacancies statewide for staff positions, such as bus drivers or cafeteria workers.
In Doral, on the other hand, many schools have made “now hiring” posts on their social media channels for a wide variety of subjects and grades, although it is still unknown with how many vacancies this new year will begin.
The reasons behind this scenario are broad but to start, it can be said that working as a teacher is no longer attractive to a growing number of people. This was confirmed in a national survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) among members of the public education system. Of those surveyed, 80% said they were dissatisfied with their job, while 46% said they were extremely dissatisfied.
The most concerning aspect about this is that more and more teachers are leaving their jobs behind while a decreasing number of young individuals are opting for a teaching career. The 2010-11 school year started with around 1,000 teacher vacancies while universities graduated 8,000 students in this profession.
However, this year will start with more than 9,000 vacancies, and only between 2,000 and 3,000 people graduated from the teaching career over the summer. “Last year we had over 4,000 vacancies throughout the year that were never filled, so when you consider that on average one teacher has 100 students, that means hundreds of thousands of students didn’t get the education they deserved,” says Spar.
Given this scenario, the question that remains in the air is: What is happening with this profession so that it is no longer attractive? First of all, teachers are not getting paid what they should given their workload, which increased with the pandemic, and the impact they create in society.
At the state level, teacher pay is not only low but has gotten worse over the years, ranking 37th in the country for average salary in this profession in 2010, while today it ranks 48th amongst all 50 states and Washington, D.C. with an average payment of $51,009 in the year 2020-21. That is, only in three areas nationwide teachers earn less than in Florida.
In this regard, teachers with extensive experience are at a disadvantage compared to recent graduates because Florida ranks 16th best in the nation for teacher starting salary. Both data (average salary and teacher starting salary) were compiled by the National Education Association (NEA).
Taking into account that the minimum salary a teacher receives in the state is $47,500 and that the starting salary has improved, today many professionals begin their careers earning only slightly less than those who have spent decades in the industry. Some experienced educators today even receive less than their peers of 15 years ago.
The reasons behind the low salaries are complex but for Andrew Star, the main one is that decision makers are not talking about what they should nor are they using the available resources properly.
“Let’s talk about what really matters: We need high-quality, certified teachers who are supported financially, morally, and ethically. The problem is not a lack of funds because this state is one of the wealthiest in the nation. The problem is that in Florida not enough is invested in education.”
But the responsibility also lies within voters. That is why the advice is to question everyone who is running for office. “If they don’t talk about investing in schools or providing more support for teachers, don’t vote for them.”
At the local level, although in Miami-Dade there is a school bond referendum that was approved in 2018 and is expected to be renewed this year, the problem is greater if the high cost of living is taken into account.
“Perhaps a teacher here can earn more than one who lives up north of the state. However, that teacher pays less in housing, so even by offering more incentives, we are never going to keep up with the cost of living. In Doral, many have moved out because their rent went up and they can no longer work and live here,” says Christi Fraga, Miami-Dade School Board representative for District 5.
According to Fraga, there aren’t enough funds, and the school board’ operating cost is through the roof. In her opinion, more money would be available if more projects intended to cut expenses were implemented, such as consolidating schools that have a low enrollment rate.
In order to reduce the low salaries in the district, two initiatives are being explored: Negotiations are being held with the union to benefit teachers and there is a project in motion for subsidized workforce housing. “Through a public-private partnership, we are going to have schools with a housing component for teachers,” Fraga announces.
The voice of teachers and parents
It is clear that teachers and parents are concerned about the upcoming school year. For this reason, we spoke with four of them who agreed that teachers are resigning not only for the low payment they receive but because they don’t feel respected.
“I started teaching in 2001 with a base salary of between $35,000 and $40,000. Today I earn $48,017 plus a bonus of $8,764. A person who was my student became a teacher and is earning only $1,000 less than me,” says a teacher at a public school in Doral who preferred to remain anonymous.
But, in addition, educators are doing more work than before the pandemic. “In 2021, children returned to school with many academic and social problems and this translated into a greater workload for us. Every day they ask us to do more and more things, while the money doesn’t increase”.
She states that almost all of her co-workers have a second job. “One friend has a landscaping business, someone else does tutoring, and another one teaches at a university. I work in real estate and live outside of Doral because it is impossible for me to afford local housing costs.”
Alexandra Chace, who soon will gather 22 years in the public school system, is in a similar situation. She claims earning only $1,500 more than a beginning teacher and combines her job as an elementary school teacher with that of a bartender for which she makes a lot more money. “I even have a master’s degree and I can’t survive on a single salary.”
“It is a slap in the face what those who finish raising my children earn. It’s not possible that they are only recognized with what we as parents collect to give them a Christmas gift,” says Carolina Mejía, a Miami mother and author of the blog ‘La Mamá Latina’.
In addition, teachers are leaving the system because they lack autonomy to teach. “The education in the USA is obsolete, and teachers do not have the freedom to address different types of situations,” says Carolina, who had to enroll one of her children in a private school because he never adapted to the rigour of the public system and she didn’t receive any solution to this.
The fact that teachers have poor working conditions and that there is a shortage of them is especially detriment for children. This is one of the concerns that Denise Gallamini has, as she says her children’s school, located in Broward, will begin with 18 teachers less.
“One of my children had a learning gap due to starting Kindergarten in the middle of the pandemic. This has been resolved already, but what will happen to those children who still have learning gaps if there aren’t enough teachers available?, Will they be helped to reach their goals in even more crowded classrooms led by unmotivated teachers that could resign at any given time?.”
In this regard and at Miami-Dade school district, Fraga states children will not be abandoned. “The most important thing for us is the stability of our students, and we don’t want them to start the year with one teacher and end it with another one. They are not going to be left without instructors, and as a last resort, we would send people from our administrative department to schools to cover the vacancies since they are all teachers.”