Lou Steigerwald, Ed. S.

  • School Superintendent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Plant Wrangler/Gardener
  • Middling Gamer

Teacher Shortage Causes

What’s the Deal with the Shortage of Teachers Nationwide?

Schools across the U.S. are facing tremendous challenges in filling teacher vacancies.  There is little doubt that there will be children in classrooms across the United States who will begin the school year without a teacher in place in their classroom(s) or with teachers who have been placed in subjects outside their area of certification, or even with folks placed in the classroom because no one else was available.  You may have heard about this crisis, but you may not have heard what is factoring into this critical problem.

Teaching is not the only field where employers are having a hard time finding suitable employees.  We have all noted the many help wanted signs on businesses throughout our communities.  While many have blamed the pandemic and the “great resignation” for the problem, there is more to it than that.  From a demographic standpoint there is a problem baked into the number of employees available to hire.

For the longest time the Baby Boom generation was the largest generation in U.S. history.  The generation that followed the Boomers, Generation X, is smaller than the Boomer generation.  As the Boomers began to retire, it was thus a given that there would be fewer available employees in the talent pool.  It just stands to reason that one cannot fill vacant jobs when one has fewer folks entering and in the system than those who are leaving the system through retirement or death.  The Millennial Generation is now larger than the Baby Boom generation due to the natural process of decline in the number of Baby Boomers via death.  The Millennial Generation is considered to be those born between 1981 to 1996.  The youngest of the Millennials then are near the start of their professional careers and just beginning to be available to fill the roles being left behind by the last of the retiring Boomers and the beginning of retiring Gen Xers. (Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/28/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers-as-americas-largest-generation/)  More specific evidence as well as child population projections can be accessed through the U.S. Census website (https://www.childstats.gov/AMERICASCHILDREN/tables/pop1.asp).

For the education field though, it’s more complicated than just demographics.  Not only is the education profession faced with the same demographic realities as other employment segments, fewer young people are choosing education for a career.  Per an EdWeek report in March of 2022, between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019 traditional teaching programs saw a 35% decline in enrollment.  No doubt some of this was due to the aforementioned demographic reality; however, it is also true that there have simply been fewer people choosing education for a career (https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/fewer-people-are-getting-teacher-degrees-prep-programs-sound-the-alarm/2022/03).

Combine the unavoidable facts presented by a demographically smaller workforce (temporary though that may be), fewer folks choosing the profession, and a rise in the number of children in the U.S. and you have a perfect storm of factors that have resulted in the teacher availability crisis.  Based on demographics alone, it is not surprising that there is a short supply of teachers or workers in any field for that matter.  This reality is being borne out in the current labor marketplace.  Add in folks not choosing education with a rising school age population and you have an accurate account of the headwinds facing schools.

But the factors above are not all of the story.  While the teacher employment crisis is finally getting attention in both the media and from some government agencies, it cannot be said that no one was sounding the alarm on the now present crisis.  Education associations, state committees, and individuals have warned that this crisis was imminent for a long time now.  I have personally warned thought leaders and politicians that this day was coming for over a decade now.  The public should not accept any public official whose been around for any length of time claiming this day could not be seen on the horizon.  They were duly warned.

In Michigan there is finally money in the budget to help grow the teaching profession.  Whether this will draw young people into the profession is unknown.  Teachers regularly site low pay and stress as two of the leading causes for walking away from the profession.  Programs to forgive college debt and to provide stipends for student teachers do not directly address either of those two challenges.  Thus the medicine concocted by the state may be directed at the wrong source of the malady.  Only time will tell.  

Time, however, is not something today’s students have.  Even if the approaches being tried are successful, there is at least a four or five year delay in improvements to the teacher availability pipeline.  That is potentially another half decade of schools struggling to find teaching staff and endlessly poaching one another for qualified adults in classrooms.  We must be prepared to adjust rapidly and realistically to this crisis if we are to provide the education children need and that our society and our businesses require to thrive.

White guilt

While driving back to the U.P. from a meeting in Lansing last week, I tuned into a radio station on which there was a discussion of replacement theory. During the discussion a commentator defended Tucker Carlson and Fox News from having any responsibility for the recent murder of Black Americans in Buffalo by a racist, white supremacist who was influenced by the awful lies and dangerous conspiracies often spun by Mr. Tucker on his Fox News white power propaganda program. The speaker chalked such allegations up to liberal white guilt. As a white, liberal, fella I want to say that I’m not familiar with the epidemic of liberal, caucasian guilt to which the speaker refers.

My relatives replaced Americans

I am only the second generation American citizen on my grandfather’s side of the family. My grandfather came through Ellis Island, where they changed his first name for him to Louis.

My grandfather’s family was poor and my great-grandfather moved his children to America one by one whenever he had saved enough money to do so. My grandfather knew no English on arrival and had little schooling. He became a tool and die maker by telling prospective employers he was a tool and die maker, working just long enough to learn a little of the trade and getting fired until he finally learned enough to earn his journeyman’s card. While this tale is spunky and spirited today, no doubt in his day many looked down on the lying fellow from Eastern Europe. Just another dirty devil replacing good American workers by lying his way into the automotive industry!

I am married to a naturalized American citizen. My wife came over from Germany with her family when Volkswagen sent her father to the States to open a U.S. auto plant. Yet another foreigner taking American jobs!

At the same time though, both my grandfather and my father-in-law are no doubt more acceptable immigrants because they are, get ready…white. My father-in-law came over during the Nixon administration. Imagine that! A Republican president opening up the border to terrifying immigrants and giving away American jobs! And yet, the country managed to endure.

Today’s Republican party is the party of hatred and bigotry. Collectively the party is a clear and present danger to democracy in the United States. From the seditionists who tried to overthrow an election, to the white nationalists who drive party dogma today, the Republican party is as dangerous as any other party organized around hatred and fear as has ever existed.

There is no equivalence on the other side of the aisle. Republicans who claim there is are only lying in order to spread fear and hatred. There is a grand difference between disagreeing as to whether or not health care should be free and accessible to all and lying about the attempt to overthrow an election and preaching replacement theory and not minding the violence it brings.

Democrats and the few Republicans left who refuse to kowtow to the MAGA thugs must, perhaps ironically, do whatever is necessary to defend democracy from those seeking to destroy it from within.

School Tragedies

Very tragically a middle school student in an Upper Peninsula school brought a gun to school, carried it with him and in the middle of the day used the gun to commit suicide. What happened next was predictable, an outpouring of shared shock and grief as well as condolences for the family, school, and community. Next will come the finger pointing.

Some will ask, “How could a someone bring a gun to school, carry it with him, and then use it with no one knowing he had it in school?” Others will blame the school and district for either not knowing the level of crisis the student was in and/or for not knowing the student had the firearm with him in school. These questions will only add to the pain in the community and the school district.

When these tragedies happen it is a normal part of the process to ask what happened and what could have been done. Since the tragic shooting in Oxford, Michigan, we’ve seen this same thing play out with some blaming the school district for what happened.

The saddest thing about all of this hindsightedness is its predictability, followed by the lack of any action that could help schools in a realistic and effective manner. Political systems are too often more prone to reactive rather than the proactive responses that could possibly prevent sad events. In the case of school gun violence we must add that it is apparent that even the simplest of gun laws, say a law requiring gun owners to place trigger locks on guns in their homes, is out of the question in today’s political environment.

Take the case of the U.P. tragedy and the lack of sufficient mental health care in American schools. In response to questions about the event the district superintendent, Bryan DeAugustine noted that the district had been trying to hire a new counselor but, “It’s been hard because not a lot of people are going into counseling these days.” No doubt Mr. DeAugustine is referring to the opportunity given to schools via ESSER funds and the Michigan 31o program that temporarily helps schools hire mental health workers in response to concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs are excellent examples of the sorts of knee jerk reactions schools too often get.

Under the 31o/ESSER program schools can apply for a grant from the state to fund school mental health workers or nurses. The funding provides for 100% of the expenses in the first year, 66% of expenses in the second year, 33% of expenses in the third year, and no funds in the fourth year. Does this mean that mental health issues will disappear in a manner concurrent with the financial support? Of course not.

The other problem with this program is that, as Mr. DeAugustine indicates, is that it was made available with zero lead in to the available funding. It is not as if there were a plethora of unemployed, competent health providers sitting around idly hoping for the someday when there would be a global pandemic and then government funds available for schools to hire them. Furthermore, what certified, trained professionals are eager to sign up for jobs that may well disappear when funding begins to seriously dry up three years later?

Schools might have a better chance at identifying and helping prevent school tragedies if, instead of reactive, and temporary programs, they were provided with guaranteed, adequate funding needed to hire and retain mental health professionals as well as even the mildest of gun safety laws. Without such support we will continue to face these tragedies and the hindsight finger-pointing that goes along with it.

Declining Population in the U.P. and Politicians

Communities with declining and aging populations face challenging futures. In order to thrive and grow, communities rely on attracting and retaining families with or planning to have children. Economic opportunities follow growth as well. Families are important drivers of consumption; families provide employers with a working age supply of employees. In this important election year, voters should demand that politicians seeking office tell us their plans for reversing the trend of the Upper Peninsula’s declining and aging population. Nothing is more important than reversing this trend.

Dickinson and Iron Counties have not been exempt from a decline in population. Data from the World Population Review website reveals that, since 2020, Dickinson County has seen a decline in population of 5.3% and Iron County has seen a decline of 7.27%. Just as important, as our population has declined, our counties have aged. Even in a state wherein the age of the population is the twelfth highest in the nation at 39.8 years, Dickinson County’s average age of 46.5 years and Iron County’s 54.7 years, best the state average.

More evidence for the decline in family population can be seen in what is happening in our schools. The mischooldata.org website lists the combined enrollment of public school districts served by the Dickinson-Iron ISD as 5,253 students in 2012-2013, but just 4,905 students, or a 6.6% decline, in 2021-2022. Of the six districts in Dickinson and Iron Counties, only one district, Breitung Townships Schools, saw an increase in students over the same period. Based on the decline in population of surrounding districts, it is safe to assume that Breitung’s gains only came at the expense of a decline in its neighboring districts and is not due to an increase in school aged families in our region.

In order for our communities to thrive and grow, these trends must be stopped and reversed. Quite simply, any region that cannot supply its own economy with the working aged and skilled workers businesses need can thrive. Employers who cannot find employees will either have to close up shop or move away. Families will flow to where the well paying jobs are…as we see in regions of the nation that gained U.S. House Representatives as opposed to losing representation, as Michigan did.

While politicians may want to divert our attention away from answering what can be done to reverse this trend, voters must insist that those seeking office not be allowed to avoid answering questions about what they plan to do in order to bring families and businesses to our community.

Finger pointing at the “other” party, whichever party that is, must not be tolerated or accepted as a means of avoiding solutions to this vital topic. Our communities need new, attractive, and available housing for families. Where will those new neighborhoods go and what can be done to support this development? Schools across the U.P. and in our counties are struggling to fill teacher vacancies in nearly every grade and subject level. How do we attract young people to enter the teaching profession and to stay there for a career? What sorts of employees do our local employers need and how can our municipalities and communities work to attract those sorts of employees and families?

These questions require collaboration, regardless of party affiliation, research, hard work, and clear plans for vitalizing and growing our very special region. This important election year brings with it a chance for voters to elect politicians who are dedicated to finding answers to these entrenched and difficult challenges. Voters must insist on real plans and viable answers.

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