During teacher shortage, more educators take nontraditional career paths
August 23, 2021
It’s a calling, Catholic educators say of their profession.
But as a teacher shortage becomes more acute, more people are finding that calling through less conventional routes: as second careers, post-retirement jobs or as a means to fulfill a longtime desire to live and communicate the Catholic faith.
Teacher shortages have been a problem nationwide for about a decade, said April Buschelman, an education instructor at Creighton University in Omaha and director of field experiences and certification for the department.
Some areas of teaching have a history of shortages, such as math, science, special education, world languages – and in Catholic schools, religion or theology.
But the shortage has expanded, Buschelman said.
“We’re actually seeing a really big shortage … even for elementary teachers,” she said. “So it’s definitely getting worse, and we’re projecting it to be even worse in the upcoming years because of the general population decline.”
Within the next five years, Buschelman said, the United States is expected to lose 100,000 teachers. “And a lot of it’s because the baby boomers are at retirement age.”
In Nebraska last year, 26% of open teaching positions didn’t have a single applicant, according to Buschelman.
“So let’s say it was an elementary position that you couldn’t get filled. So then the class size gets bigger because you have to redistribute the kids among the teachers there, or you have to hire a local substitute, or you use distance education.”
For Catholic schools, “the shortage of well-prepared theology or religion teachers is the elephant in the room,” said Timothy Cook, education professor and chair of the education department at Creighton, who specializes in Catholic education. “This is an area that is central to the mission of Catholic schools. … You must be able to teach religion.”
All Catholic school teachers are vital and have a role in building the school’s culture, said Vickie Kauffold, Catholic Schools superintendent for the archdiocese.
“I want the teachers who come to us to see that they’re part of something bigger,” she said. “Teaching is a noble profession. If we can get teachers to appreciate what they do in the classroom today – whether it’s third-graders, fifth-graders, seventh-graders or seniors – they’re forming the future of our church and the future of our communities and the future of our nation. They have an awesome responsibility, and what a noble profession education is.”
FROM PUBLIC TO CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
For Amy Krance-Wendt, “it was a God thing,” “a leap of faith,” not to renew her contract with Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools without another job lined up.
Work on the family farm was a possibility. Maybe a corporate position, she thought.
Then she eyed an administrative opening at her parish’s school, St. Wenceslaus in Omaha.
Because of the school’s team approach, the self-described “small-town girl” feels at home as an assistant principal watching over a student body of 900.
Tina Thiele-Blecher didn’t even apply for her job as principal of St. Michael School in Albion, though moving to a parochial school had been on her mind for several years.
Another Catholic school administrator had recommended Thiele-Blecher, who taught at Elgin Public Schools.
Father Mark Tomasiewicz, pastor of St. Michael Parish, reached out, and Thiele-Blecher had a job offer waiting on her answering machine before she even made it home from their meeting.
But already, in the back of her mind, the decision had been made, she said. “This was a calling.”
From early on in her career, Kolene Krysl liked the idea of teaching in a Catholic school. But first she felt God was calling her to public schools in California before she returned to the Omaha area to teach in the Millard and Westside school districts.
After 34 years of teaching in public schools, Krysl retired last year with the idea that she might continue a while longer as a substitute teacher.
Then a friend called.
“How serious are you about being done teaching?” asked the friend, a teacher at St. Mary School in Bellevue. “We’re looking for a hire.”
Krysl now teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses for kindergarten through eighth grade and social studies for sixth through eighth grade. But she also teaches religion to seventh-graders.
“I kind of felt I’d come full circle,” Krysl said. “The thought of being able to teach openly about the faith” excited her, she said.
Krysl has been no stranger to families at St. Mary. As a member of the parish, she’s helped with the children’s liturgy at Sunday Masses.
“I am moving into a familiar territory, but with new challenges,” Krysl said. “And God willing, I’ll have the patience and zeal.”
FILLING A GAP
Krysl, Thiele-Blecher and Krance-Wendt might not be customary recruits for Catholic schools, but they’re helping to fill a gap. Across the country, fewer undergraduate students are entering the education field, Cook said.
General college enrollment is expected to decline at least 15 percent by the 2024-25 school year, Buschelman said. So even the pool of potential teachers will be down.
Creighton University used to host a job fair for teachers but had to discontinue it. “We didn’t have enough teachers to even interview because they all took positions so early,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic also has contributed to the teacher shortage, Buschelman said, and is expected to continue to pull teachers out of the field because of the stress and strain the disease has caused.
“We already saw it,” she said. “People were leaving in the middle of the year. Last year I had principals calling me, saying ‘We just had somebody leave. Do you have students who could come in?’”
The school had no one to offer, she said.
A community approach and some creativity are needed to help recruit teachers, said Buschelman. Teachers might be lured with incentives such as housing stipends or paying for a portion of groceries each month.
Colleges and universities also are thinking outside the box, she said.
Some offer programs that transition people from other fields into classrooms. They might be from an accounting firm and be proficient in business, for example. And with about half of their education courses completed, they are introduced into the classroom, where the rest of their teacher training will be continued.
“The drawback is these people only have like five education classes under their belt, but they are proficient in their subject area,” Buschelman said.
In the Archdiocese of Omaha, Kauffold said, she has signed off on more than a dozen alternative teaching certificates this year for educators who followed that route.
Creighton has another tool geared specifically for Catholic schools: its Magis Catholic Teacher Corps – a two-year, post-graduate program of service and faith formation designed to recruit and develop Catholic School teachers.
The Magis program is a creative and successful response to the teacher shortage, Cook said, with 85% of graduates continuing in Catholic schools.
To attract and keep teachers, Catholic schools also have been boosting pay for school teachers and administrators. Nationally, Catholic schools aim for 85% of the public school starting salary, Cook said. While some Catholic schools fall short of that, several in the archdiocese exceed that amount, he said.
An area of concern he has for Catholic schools during the teacher shortage is being able to recruit people of color and from underrepresented groups.
“I think Catholic schools need to be more intentional about recruiting teachers and leaders and other school professionals who look like their students. And that’s one area where I don’t think we are as intentional as we need to be.”
Also important: Catholic schools need to hire teachers and staff who “want to participate in the total educational and evangelizing mission of the school,” Cook said. “And that includes the spiritual formation of students. … It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be Catholic, but the bottom line is you are willing to actively participate.”
“It takes a special person to be a Catholic school teacher,” he said. “It’s an added dimension to teaching in a public school.”