MORGANTOWN — Consider this conundrum: a state where the population has decreased about two percent over the past seven years has a teacher shortage problem.
Essentially, at a time when student population should hypothetically be decreasing, the result is still a rotating door of shortages in West Virginia’s public classrooms. And, according to WVU Associate Professor Matthew Campbell, there seems to be limited will for a collective resolution.
“How this problem is talked about in many other places around the country doesn’t necessarily apply here,” said Campbell. “That’s what’s really drawn us to thinking about or wanting to take a deeper dive into understanding this problem and kind of drawing attention to the fact that we can’t just try to learn from the national lessons around this issue.”
Campbell is a Ph.D. in mathematics education. Along with Erin McHenry-Sorber, a fellow assistant professor and Ph.D. in educational leadership, he is seeking to find answers to West Virginia’s teaching shortage.
“Research shows that perhaps the best approach to solving the complex teacher-shortage issue requires the collaboration across higher education institutions, K-12 schools, state policymakers and regional leaders,” McHenry-Sorber said.
One key takeaway both Campbell and McHenry-Sorber are focusing on: the oft-cited teacher vacancy number exceeding 700 not telling the entire story of education in West Virginia.
“All these numbers we hear only provide part of the picture,” Campbell said. “They come out in dribs and drabs throughout the year, and sometimes by the time you hear the number they are actually kind of dated.”
As Campbell points out, there are not simply 700 or more empty classrooms in schools around the Mountain State at any given moment during the school year. There are adults in those classrooms. The problems, he said, come down to a number of issues — underqualified, short-term subs, long-term substitutes, retired former teachers filling in a role and teachers forced to teach a subject in which they didn’t specialize.
“It’s not just like there’s no one there,” Campbell said. “Then we find there’s ways in which that number is a lot bigger.”
All of those things are likely having an impact on students. Realistically, how could such inconsistency from classroom-to-classroom and year-to-year not have an impact? But McHenry-Sorber said that impact, if it does exist, isn’t yet quantifiable.
“What’s fascinating about this issue is that there’s no data being collected on how the teacher shortage actually affects student achievement,” she said.
She added: “You might enter a math classroom where you have a long-term sub who is there part of the year and perhaps a day-to-day sub part of the year and then maybe you get another long-term sub for the remainder of the year. There’s definitely some uncertainty for students.”
To put it bluntly, this academic landscape is hardly an ideal one for students, and both professors agreed there doesn’t appear to be any type of catch-all solution.
For research purposes, McHenry-Sorber and Campbell have interviewed stakeholders across the state — including teachers, union reps, and administrative figures. The goal of their research is to, perhaps, begin identifying some potential solutions to reducing the shortages.
“One of the problematic things about the teacher shortage in this state, for example, we have about 20 different causes that interview respondants have listed for us, right?” McHenry-Sorber said. “Twenty different reasons that people attribute the teacher shortage to — and not nearly that many solutions.”
Those 20 different reasons can include an assortment of things — pay, geographic isolation, lack of confidence in the school system or the area and much more.
“Rural scholars have been talking about problems of teacher recruitment and retention for decades,” McHenry-Sorber said. “This is not a new issue for rural places.”
McHenry-Sorber did praise Grow Your Own programs — which try to recruit new teachers who are already settled in a particular community — as a potential way to meet the classroom needs.
“We’re reaching out to people who are already committed to their community and thinking about how we can help prepare them to become teachers so that they can remain in that space to which they are already committed,” she said.
The two both agreed there was one thing the state could potentially capitalize on to solve this problem, but that it only offers vague hope — rather than a more concrete solution.
“One thing that we’ve learned very quickly since we’ve come to West Virginia is how much pride people have in this state and how much people love this state and want to remain here,” McHenry-Sorber said. “We just need to find ways to capitalize on that in a way that’s meaningful for education.”