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Maine districts are still struggling to find enough teachers as the school year begins

Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus faculty and staff for the 2022-2023 school year.
Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus Facebook page
Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus faculty and staff for the 2022-2023 school year.

As the school year gets underway in Maine, many districts are still struggling to find enough teachers, and some have reported dozens of vacancies.

Jackson Green, the principal of the Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus, a combined middle and high school in Sullivan, Maine, wrote a letter to Maine's two U.S. senators this month to draw attention to the dire situation. For the upcoming school year 80% of his school's new teachers lack an appropriate teaching certificate, he said in the letter. The school held its first day of classes on Wednesday morning.

"The number one thing I'm always looking for when we have teachers, are, is this teacher good enough for my kids? Would I want my own kids in this classroom?" Green said.

In an interview, Green told Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg that low teacher compensation is one factor at play. But he said educators are also dealing with more pressures and responsibilities than ever, and that's affecting the number of qualified people entering the profession.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jackson Green: Unfortunately, what's happened because of, I believe, the degradation of our educational system, is that we are not finding great quality teachers. Don't get me wrong, we have really good teachers. But we also are not finding the quality of teacher that we would have found, say, 20 years ago, coming out of an educational program.

And so, when things occur, you have to say to yourself as an administrator, 'Okay, what do I do?' Do we get rid of this person? Because if we do, I have no one. I have no one to fill that spot. So when I have to lower my standards to say, 'Would I want my own children to be in that classroom?' and the answer isn't yes, that's a problem for me as an educator and a parent. Because I want that answer to be yes for every teacher that we employ, so that every student that comes into our school gets the same level of education as every other student.

Robbie Feinberg: I wonder, how do you talk to both residents and parents about this when they hear that long term subs, or folks who are technically unqualified, are filling in these vacancies? And you don't have the full, qualified teachers in these jobs? How do you talk to community members about that, about what that means for students?

Well, it's certainly not an easy conversation. And I honestly think it's one of the things that's led to the problem getting to be as big as it is, right? The cancer that has grown. Because schools don't want to acknowledge that. What school wants to go out in public and say that, right? It's a difficult conversation to have, when you're having those. Because parents want to have the very best. I truly believe there is not a parent out there that doesn't want their children to have the very best education possible. They could be an incarcerated felon, but they want their children to have the best education. I truly believe that.

And so, we reassure them that we are working with those teachers, we're providing them mentors. We provide them supports with our district. We do get them into college programs, and we're working towards certification. And so there is a process, they don't just sort of go unchecked.

Why has the situation gotten so dire right now, from your own perspective?

There's no one thing. I think that's what everybody's looking for. I mean, we have seen substantial increases in the amount of student misbehavior that has occurred. At the same time, the state and the federal government are often trying to suppress schools from suspending students, for example. There has been a lot of pressure on schools to sort of keep those students in school, which is difficult. This is where I think rural America has the challenge a bit more complex — if a student has, a disability, for example, that [behavior] is related to their disability, and they're exhibiting those symptoms. So they're biting the teacher, they're tearing up the classroom, they're throwing stuff, they're hurting their peers, there's no other placement to put them when you're in rural America. I mean, sure, we have placements that we can go to, but they're always full. They're very selective on which students they'll take. And so oftentimes, the public school system ends up being the catch-all for that behavior.

When you take that issue, compounded [with the fact] that we don't have teachers coming out of preparation programs where they're learning the skills to deal with those behaviors... I mean, that's an impossible task that you're asking schools to take on.

How much do you think schools can do when they are facing all of this? When does it become a breaking point? Or have we reached that breaking point, would you say?

I think we're past the breaking point, Robbie. I don't think the breaking point is ahead of us. I think it's behind us. And going back to [the question of] why did I write the letter, more people need to speak out on the issues that are occurring. So the people know, really, how dire of a situation that we're in.