Nebraska schools filling the gaps amid teacher shortage

Dec. 16, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Students play around at the front of a classroom in Omaha. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

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There is a nationwide educator shortage and Nebraska is no exception. The Nebraska Department of Education reports there were 482 unfilled education positions last year in the state.

Kalina Kalita, a freshman at Lincoln East High School, said she goes to school everyday wondering if her classes will be mixed up because of the educator shortage, or if she will even have school that day.

“I think it can affect every student individually. If you have to group up in different classrooms, one class might be ahead of the other and then you have a lot of confusion in the classes,” she said.

Kalita isn’t the only student affected. There is an impact on many students when schools are short of educators. Cole Schmid, a senior at York High School in central Nebraska, said one of his statistics classes was taught over the phone while his teacher was home with a sick child. He says it’s frustrating.

“The shortage has kind of affected me at the high school. There are not always a ton of subs that can cover classes,” he said.

Probably every student in Nebraska can tell a story like Kalita’s and Schmid’s because there is an ongoing shortage of educators all over. But Nebraska schools do have some plans to fix this problem.

Some districts hired permanent substitute teachers, said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association.

“I believe in Lincoln Public Schools, they probably hired 20 of those kinds of subs to help with that, to just have some consistency there,” she said.

There are also possible solutions coming from teacher education programs at universities around the state. Peter Adams, the director of the education department at Union College in Lincoln helps prepare college students for problems that may occur in the classroom.

“I throw various administrative conundrums at them, ‘What would you do if…’. Many of them are built on actual experiences I’ve had in my career. Sometimes there’s not one good answer, but you just have to kind of work through various kinds of things,” he said.

Another solution is the use of paraprofessionals, staff members who act as an aide of the main teacher by supporting individual students or groups of students. They can also help with behavioral problems, said Guy Trainin, professor of education at the University of Nebraska. If these paraeducators can assist the teacher in times of need, then it will ultimately decrease the chances of teachers leaving, he said.

“Having somebody like that in your classroom, that can provide the support for some of your most challenging students, is part of the magic that can keep teachers in the classroom,” he said.

According to Trainin, the paraeducators sometimes become full-time teachers, which would also help the shortage.

In fact, some school districts are exposing high school students to education through para work. York School District has a paraeducator program. Cole Schmid, the senior at York High School, is participating in the program. He said after he took on this role, he’s decided to work with children as a future career. He said some of his peers have also made this decision.

“My best friend who always wanted to be an engineer or an architect is now seriously considering kindergarten education,” Schmid said.

Even if Schmid, his friend and other young people actually become teachers, they will need schools to support them so they stay in the profession.

Third grade teacher Jenny McCarthy, who teaches at York Elementary, has observed the recent shortage of educators. She said in her first year of teaching, there were about 75 applicants for two open positions. During the last hiring process, there were five applicants.

In times of burnout, McCarthy said her school strives to make a difference to teachers' wellbeing.

“Workout Wednesdays is one thing our principle has added,” she said. “So, on Wednesdays we are free to wear workout gear just to have it be a down day. But also checking in on each other. Everyone is trying to do a good job of that and making sure everybody is good.”

McCarthy also talked about some of the ways she alleviates teacher burnout, personally.

“Once 4:30-5:00 hits, I go home. Whether the work is done or not, you just go home, do your thing with your family, come back the next morning and what’s left is left,” she said.

As teachers and districts continue to get creative about solving the educator shortage, there's a pipeline of students about to become teachers. The University of Nebraska graduates about 250 to 300 teachers a year. But even if all of those graduates stay in Nebraska, that isn’t enough to solve the problem.