Blake Vickers

Some of Madison County’s educators are sounding the alarm on what they say is a crisis of morale, insulting rhetoric, and financial struggle across classrooms.

“If you’re not paying us enough and you’re continually disrespecting us and using our own students and our profession as a political pawn in your game, people don’t wanna get involved in that,” said Madison Central High School teacher Susan Cintra.

Based on hiring data from the 2019-2020 school year, the United States Department of Education (USDE) has designated Madison County as having teacher shortages in the Early Childhood Development and English as a Second Language pathways.

According to the Kentucky Education Placement System, 1,203 education positions have opened in Kentucky in the last 120 days. Three of those positions come from the Madison County School District.

In contrast to findings from the USDE, a representative of the Madison County School District said there currently is not a shortage in the district, but the number of those applying for jobs is down.

Model Laboratory School has found itself in a similar position regarding applications.

“There definitely seem to be fewer applications for positions than in the past. I remember when I first applied for teaching jobs years ago, and we’d always hear about there being 20 or 30 applicants for one position,” said Christopher Budano, assistant superintendent and director of advising and counseling at Model. “Now, we find that if we receive a handful of applications for a position, that is good. In some cases, there are even fewer applicants who are qualified or meet the requirements for the position. Even worse, in some subjects, like math, it may take several months and lots of recruitment to find someone qualified to apply.”

While Model started the year fully staffed with teachers and paraeducators, Budano said that some of those employees have left the field this school year — and Model expects more to leave at the end of the school year. He noted that there has not been any impact on education, but there has been a struggle to find support staff like paraeducators, substitute teachers, and bus drivers for certain activities.

Budano, who oversees hiring at Model, thinks the pandemic played a role in the current state of affairs in education. However, he believes the roots of the national shortage began with the rhetoric around educators parroted by some lawmakers and media outlets.

“Even before the pandemic, teachers were feeling disrespected by some politicians and members of the media. They felt their expertise was being questioned, and the relatively low pay for the level of education that many have, just didn’t make it practical to remain in or begin in the field,” Budano said.

During a 2022 presentation to the Joint Education Committee, Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said 72% of the state’s full-time teachers run the risk of exiting the field for a variety of reasons.

While Rachel Cornelius currently works in the administrative role of communications and marketing director at Model, she used to spend her time in the classroom teaching at a different school (which she chose not to name.) Cornelius spoke to the Register about what influenced her career shift, beginning with debunking the myth of educators’ eight-hour work days and summer vacations. She said that educators often find themselves sacrificing their time and personal lives to ensure that students get the proper care and education that they need.

“The biggest factor was pay and compensation not matching the time I put in. I know this is something all non-teachers are tired of hearing us complain about, but it is a problem. The time a teacher must put in if they want to be effective for their students is colossal. I know from the outside most people think teachers have it great – off work at 3 p.m. and having holidays and summers off. I wish it was that simple,” Cornelius said. “When I taught full-time, I was working 12-hour days almost every day, and I worked through the summer. I felt like I was the only teacher putting in this extra time for my students, and the shortage, alongside the pandemic, pushed accountability to the back burner.”

Regarding school-wide effects of the shortage, Cornelius said that morale is low and causes negative effects beyond just the area of instruction.

“Due to the low morale and little accountability, no teacher wants to go above and beyond in their classroom anymore, nor volunteer to head clubs and organizations. What happens is the teachers who are truly wanting to be there for the kids get everything thrown on them,” Cornelius said. “Go to any school right now, and I guarantee you will find two-to-three teachers who run most of the clubs, organizations, programs, or events. Those teachers end up feeling like they are being taken advantage of, especially when there is not compensation for doing those things, and they become frustrated and burnt out.”

Ultimately, Cornelius believes that paying teachers more is the solution to the staffing crisis happening in schools.

“No person who has a master’s degree or a Rank 1 Teaching Certification should be living paycheck to paycheck and barely able to pay all of the bills,” Cornelius said.

According to a 2022 report from the teachers union National Educators Association, the pay for teachers in Kentucky has dropped to 36th overall in the United States, or about $11,000 lower than the national average.

Cintra, who ran against Sen. Jared Carpenter in the District 35 Kentucky Senate election last year, is also the president of the Madison County Education Association (MCEA). She has been a consistent advocate for raising pay for teachers in the county – pushing for an 8% raise last year.

In May 2022, the Madison County School District dipped into its contingency fund to pass a 3% raise for teachers. While Cintra is thankful for the raise, she said that inflation and other economic woes have been hitting teachers particularly hard.

“In order to have the same buying power in Madison County as we did 10 years ago, we would need a 17.8% pay increase. Teachers have been hit by this economic downturn and inflation for a very long time. Everybody else is starting to see the ramifications of that now, but teachers have been feeling it for a long time,” Cintra said.

Like Budano, Cintra also worries that the “parents vs teachers” rhetoric that has risen nationwide over the last few years and legislation like SB 150 has also played a significant factor in the shortage.

“We are not trying to indoctrinate anyone or push any type of agenda. When you go into this profession, you do it because you love children and you love interaction. We do our jobs in spite of all that stuff because kids need us,” Cintra said. “We take care of kids — that’s what we do. Collectively I don’t think any of us care where you come from, what your religious beliefs are, or what your background is. We care about kids and that’s why we do this job. We don’t do it to push some kind of personal agenda.”

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