With all four Shelby County school systems now back in session, there are still over 1,200 job openings around the state for teachers.
The 2020-2021 school year was demanding for educators. Teaching in a pandemic was time consuming, frustrating and puzzling all at the same time.
Teachers wore masks in the classrooms. Students wore masks in the classrooms. Small group sessions were not allowed. Some students stayed virtual and never made it into a classroom.
“When I got my license in the late 80s there were so many teachers, especially at the elementary level. It was hard to find a job,” said Loper Elementary School fourth grade teacher Teresa Meredith. “You might have had 20 to 30 applicants or more (for a teaching position). Now, there are two or three.”
According to the Indiana Department of Education job bank, there are 250 elementary education teaching positions currently open – two in Shelby County.
“I have never seen so many elementary education postings in late July,” said Triton Central Elementary School principal Heather Gant. “I know an administrator in another school district is filling in in the classroom because she doesn’t have anyone hired yet.”
On Nov. 17, 2019, an estimated 20,000 people gathered on the grounds of the Indiana Statehouse to show support for teachers receiving salary increases.
Jennifer McCormick, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, spoke that day in support of teachers and stated Indiana was last in the country in teacher pay increase since 2002.
Four months later, the “Red for Ed” movement was an afterthought as COVID-19 settled in across the United States.
The most stressful year of teaching followed in 2020-2021.
“It’s tough because we don’t have (high school) graduates going into teaching,” said Gant. “It’s difficult to be an educator and take care of yourself because you graduate college after four years with all this student loan debt. Education doesn’t pay that well so it really deters some people from going into it.
“And the world of education is different; you have to wear multiple hats. You are worried about the social and emotional well-being of kids, so you are doing some counseling trying to help them with their emotions. Then you have the education piece and the state tests and state assessments keep getting harder.”
Gant always wanted to be a teacher. Her decision to take the educational path at Indiana University rather than the law path was not a difficult one to make.
“Nobody goes into education for the money,” she said. “They go into it to help kids. There is a lot of pressure with that. When you put the pressure of the job with the thinking you can’t support yourself (financially), that’s tough.”
Photo courtesy Hendricks Elementary and Loper Elementary Facebook pages
Students work at their desks with masks on during the 2020-2021 school year. (Above photo): Students work on iPads in Teresa Meredith's fourth grade classroom during the 2020-2021 school year.
Because of COVID-19, teachers-in-training at the collegiate level are not getting in-classroom instruction before they graduate. It’s a valuable component to preparing a teacher for what lies ahead.
Meredith has two sons, Taylor and Justin, that are teachers at Southwestern High School.
“We have new teachers coming in who never had the live in-student teaching experience,” said Meredith, past president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “I think some of them are quitting. I don’t know the numbers in Shelbyville, but I am hearing statewide there is another exodus.
“First it was money and then it is climate … you’ve got the perfect storm.”
Summer break was needed more than ever for state educators, who endured two months of straight virtual learning to close out the 2019-2020 school year, a summer of uncertainty, and then a 2020-2021 school year that was as much about maintaining the health and well-being of students as it was about learning.
“I think statewide and even here, there were some difficulties just finding some summer school teachers because they were just done,” said Meredith. “They spent the spring before figuring out how to do all this online stuff and spent last summer wondering what school was going to look like, how much online and how much in person.”
Teachers leaned on each other more than ever. Veteran educators needed lessons on how newer technology worked. Younger teachers needed the support from their own mentors in the building to know they were on the right track.
“The collaboration was something I haven’t seen in a long time in schools,” said Meredith Hall, music teacher at Coulston Elementary School and the president of the Shelbyville Central Teachers Association. “We all tend to get into our own lane, not that we don’t collaborate ever. This year, it was everyday we were relying on each other. Those veteran teachers like me that aren’t as tech savvy relied on those younger kids coming out of college that know what they are doing.
“Same thing, those (younger teachers) were dealing with situations they’ve never dealt with before. Those kids that came out were not able to get into schools and do student teaching the way they should have. There were face-to-face with kids sometimes for the first time. So we helped each other out.”
The start of the 2021-2022 school year is already different. COVID-19 vaccinations are readily available for teachers and older students. That alone will alleviate some of the stress in a school setting.
“I think teachers will feel a lot more comfortable because we’ve been able to get vaccinated if we wish too,” said Hall. “So your own personal health is not going to be as big of an issue.
“This year it will be making sure we keep those kids in the room learning as much as possible and not in and out like last year.”