When a special educator in Baltimore County took leave for two quarters last school year, Beverly Folkoff’s caseload doubled.
Relay Elementary School couldn’t find a substitute, so Folkoff, the county’s teacher of the year, and the only other special educator on her team, shared the extra six cases. That made it difficult to prioritize her teaching.
“Am I going to teach the child in front of me or am I going to do this paperwork?” Folkoff asked herself. She always picked the kids, she said, but that meant spending extra hours after school to finish the paperwork.
Like Folkoff, teachers around the state and nation struggled to teach in partially staffed school buildings last school year. To fill the gaps, Maryland school districts offered bonuses, raised salaries, held dozens of job fairs and tried improving work culture to keep the teachers they have and hire new ones. Bigger school systems still found themselves with hundreds of teacher vacancies this summer, but are reporting improvements.
Baltimore County, for instance, reported 322.9 unfilled teacher jobs out of 7,700 — about a 4% vacancy rate — in early August, and district officials are confident the school system will be fully staffed by the time school starts Aug. 28, according to a spokesperson. It had over 250 fewer vacancies than the same time last year.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools had 402 vacancies last summer, but is now at 247 vacancies out of its 5,700 teacher jobs, putting it on par with Baltimore County. Carroll County was sitting at a 3% vacancy rate in mid-July.
Howard County, with 4,300 teacher jobs, went from 170 vacancies last summer to 89 in early August, putting it at a 2% vacancy rate.
Harford County was in the best position to be fully staffed by the first day of school, with just 1% of teaching positions still unfilled at the end of July.
Baltimore City did not provide its teacher vacancy numbers despite repeated requests from The Banner over several weeks. System officials did say they made gains in hiring this summer.
Plans to fill the gaps
Research shows around half the schools in the nation have had the same struggle in the last year. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, 44% of public schools reported having one or more vacant teaching positions in October, and 53% reported feeling understaffed entering the 2022–23 school year.
Matthew Soldner, an Institute of Education Sciences commissioner, said the severity of having a few hundred teacher vacancies in a school system depends on where those vacancies exist.
“Public school leaders told us it was easier to fill a ‘general elementary’ vacancy than one in, say, special education,” Soldner said in an email. “So a school with multiple hard-to-fill vacancies is likely facing a larger problem than one with the same number of vacancies that aren’t hard to fill.”
One clear path to filling openings and keeping teachers: money. Both Baltimore and Howard counties recently raised their starting salaries to $58,500. Baltimore County also offered a $4,000 bonus to educators who fill a vacant special education position and is giving $4,000 to teachers who transfer to one of the 33 schools with critical staffing shortages.
Anne Arundel also offered raises and bonuses. New teachers now make $58,161. It’s one thing Superintendent Mark Bedell is doing so teachers will stick around. Others included a listening tour for staff to share their needs offering work-from-home days and building relationships with the unions. He told The Banner that he’s already seeing results. Back in May, there were over 100 fewer retirements and resignations that month than around the same time a year ago, he said.
Last year, his first year on the job, teachers were upset the system contracted with staffing agencies whose educators made more than Anne Arundel teachers. And parents were upset by unfilled bus driver positions that, at one point, left 47 routes without drivers.
While knocking on wood, Bedell said he believes all the routes will be taken care of by the first day of school on Aug. 28. They’re still down 20 drivers, but it’s better than the 72 openings they had last year. With the help of an alternative transportation program started in December, Bedell said, “We’re going to be starting off in a much, much better position.”
As for the staffing agencies, it’s something he plans to use again because Anne Arundel is growing rapidly. The agencies have helped with special education positions, which are among the hardest to fill. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that among the 53% of schools that reported being understaffed, 65% did not having enough special education teachers.
Folkoff said there isn’t a lot of interest in pursuing the specialty, and legal pressures could be a reason why. There are time-consuming state and federal requirements for fulfilling students’ individualized education plans, also known as IEPs.
“Normally, it takes three or four hours to write, and I’m pretty fast at this point,” Folkoff said.
When Folkoff had 13 students about six years ago, she’d work until 9 p.m. on occasion.
Research shows there’s less interest in the teaching field in general. Folkoff said she’s even seeing fewer teacher interns in the classrooms. She suggested recruiters go to job fairs in different states like Pennsylvania where there are many more college teacher prep programs.
“People aren’t begging to be in the education field anymore. We need to go out and find them,” Folkoff said.
Maryland’s teacher deficit
Maryland is referred to as an import state, since more than 50% of its teachers are from other states. According to a July 27 report by the Learning Policy Institute, Maryland isn’t a very attractive state for teachers. Compensation, working conditions, school resources, turnover, hiring and qualifications factored into its teacher attractiveness rating of 2.2 on a 1-5 scale.
Baltimore County Public Schools was attractive to Anderson Gray, one of the district’s newest teachers. She knew the system pretty well, since it’s where she attended and where her mother worked. The 2019 George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology graduate started off as a substitute and spent most of her time at Loch Raven Technical Academy as a world music teacher.
“I think the hardest thing about that was that I learned that there was a vacancy for a teacher for almost the whole year,” she said. “Just getting them [students] to trust that I would be there for most of the year was really hard.”
They often did not have a certificated educator within the classroom, according to Gray, and were given packets of busywork instead of lessons. Anderson, who isn’t yet certified, spent eight classes pitching in with lessons and motivating students to do their work. She didn’t make as much progress as she would have liked in the short time she had, but she’s looking forward to working with students again as a full-time world music teacher at Holabird Middle School later this month.
It’s common for Maryland teachers to be hired before they have a teaching certification. A conditional certification gives them two years to be certified after they start the job. Nearly 20% of Maryland’s inexperienced teachers work in high-poverty schools, making the state among those with the least equitable access to qualified teachers, according to the Learning Policy Institute.
Emily Nielson, Baltimore City Public Schools chief of human capital said the system hired 100 more people than it did last summer. Converting the degreed substitutes and paraprofessionals into teachers helped, she said.
Money from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, Maryland’s sweeping education reform legislation, is helping the city hire for positions they did not have before, according to Chief of Staff Alison Perkins-Cohen. It’ll help with math, art, music and world language positions. One issue they don’t have, or not as much as other districts, is recruiting a diverse staff. More than 50% are teachers of color. Seventy-five percent of its students are Black.
Like Baltimore City, Carroll County also added positions, like a math resource teacher and behavioral support specialist, this year. Ernesto Diaz, the system’s director of human services, said it’s why the number of vacancies is at 52 instead of in single digits like it was last year. Teachers of color are harder to come by in Carroll. Nonwhite kids are 21.5% of the student population, while the nonwhite teachers are 8.5%.
“All of our employees, but especially our teachers” ideally should match the backgrounds of the system’s students, Diaz said. “That continues to be a significant challenge.”
Folkoff said she feels hopeful about staffing this upcoming school year. Her school is starting the year fully staffed and she appreciates the financial incentives the system put in place to help. But it doesn’t fix everything.
“It doesn’t make me less tired. It doesn’t give me time back with my family,” she said. “We just need people.”