Game-Changing Solutions to Staff Shortages

Administrators share their biggest challenges of staffing shortages and game-changing solutions to address a shrinking educator pipeline.

Schools across the country are experiences staffing shortages that are jeopardizing an already shrinking educator pipeline. Fewer teachers in schools means potentially long-lasting effects on student learning, and high-needs and low-income schools, which already were facing staffing challenges before the pandemic hit, are especially vulnerable. It also affects the adults in schools—principals, assistant principals, teachers, and support staff—who often find themselves taking on multiple roles in a school to address understaffing. So what can be done?

NAESP talked to administrators—elementary and middle-level principals and a district-level administrator—to learn about their biggest challenges regarding staffing shortages, how they’re addressing the problem in their school, and how they are prioritizing self-care and wellness for themselves and their staff to stave off burnout.

The Biggest Challenges

A majority of schools are grappling with the same staffing shortages, but it doesn’t mean the problem is affecting their schools in the same way. But one common thread was that school leaders are having a tough time finding high-quality staff to fill positions.

“Finding high quality staff who can come in and do the important work with students, particularly with our students who have specific learning needs or challenging behaviors, is tough,” said Jessica Hutchison, an Illinois elementary school principal. “It’s not just about finding someone who can fill the position, it’s finding the right person to fill the role so that the gears keep moving. Having those holes, either in actual personnel or in expertise, make for a strain on those who are here and for the principal who needs to support onboarding and mentoring new staff.”

Beyond that, rural schools experience issues with finding staff who want to stay and live in the community, said Katy Kennedy, a middle school principal in Montana. Principals and teachers in smaller communities often wear many hats, taking on multiple roles within the school. Kennedy has begun grow-your-own teacher programs to address the shortages and build an educator pipeline in her community.

Schools with high populations of special education students are also struggling—bringing to light issues of equity in schools for these students.

“We have a high population of special education students and some of the faculty/staff shortages affect students’ IEPs,” said Tara Falasco, an elementary school principal in New York. “While a classroom teacher needs to be covered, it’s also a priority to follow an IEP and make sure his or her needs are being met.”

Game-Changing Solutions

Though the cards are stacked against schools, some have found game-changers in addressing staffing shortages.

Hiring Licensure Candidates

One big one is filling open positions with candidates who are in the process of getting licensed.

“We have been able to fill open teaching positions with candidates who are currently working on licensure (ie. career switchers) and who have a year of experience working with students,” said Lyn Marsilio, a Virginia elementary school principal. “This means we’ve been able to hire our best subs and provide better pay, mentorship, and other support.”

Rehiring Retired Teachers

Bringing retired teachers back into the workforce has been a game-changer in one New Jersey school district.

“The State of New Jersey is allowing us to use retired teachers for up to two years as well as applying for and receiving the Pilot Teacher Program, where teachers have up to five years to complete the certification process,” said New Jersey district-level administrator Sherry Knight.

Offering Competitive Pay

The shortage goes beyond teachers to paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria and custodial staff, and front office staff. When filling these positions, being able to offer adequate pay has been instrumental.

“We have re-evaluated pay scales, job descriptions, and work schedules,” said Tiffany Rehbein, an elementary school principal in Wyoming.

Using Pandemic-Relief Funds

Part of being able to offer competitive salaries means using federal funding, like ESSER pandemic-relief funds, to hire staff.

“I have used ESSER to … hire a 20-hour-a-week paraprofessional that has been of tremendous help with providing MTSS/RIT intervention support to students in our upper grades,” said Jerod Phillips Sr., a Delaware elementary school principal.

Jennifer DeRagon, an intermediate-level principal in Connecticut, also expanded her staff thanks to pandemic-relief funding.

“ESSER funds have allowed us to provide additional time for instruction with certified staff, including hiring a second math intervention teacher and providing after school academic and enrichment groups,” she said.

Enlisting Community Members

Schools are hubs in their communities, so it makes sense that they also would look to their community members to fill open positions. Marsilio has done just that, advertising open cafeteria and office staff positions in her community.

And no way of recruiting is too unconventional these days. “Social media and word of mouth are sometimes the best way to go,” said Falasco.

Building Relationships

Once you find high-quality teachers and staff, it’s imperative that schools—and their leaders—find ways to keep them.

“A game-changer for me has been the relationships I’ve built over the years in education,” said Phillips. “I’ve always exhibited my ‘why’ of being students-centered in everything I do, in addition to treating my colleagues and those I lead with the utmost respect. I unapologetically lead in a way where the teachers that I serve know that I care genuinely about them as people. They are moms, dads, wives, husbands, grandparents, caregivers for ailing family members, and so much more, and I take all that into consideration when it comes to their time. Word about that spreads, which leads to educators wanting to be a part of that culture when they see an opening in our school.”

A Focus on Wellness

Without a solution to staffing shortages, the teachers, support staff, and principals and assistant principals at the helm will experience burnout. These school leaders shared their best morale-boosting tips to help their staff stay mentally healthy and motivated during difficult times.

  • “Wellness is infused into our calendar three times a year,” said Knight. “We call them Wellness Wednesdays. Staff and students spend time doing things that are stress-free. We have games, painting, and yoga for the kids half of the half day. We dismiss the kids half-day and allow the staff to do what they want to in the building. They can go sit outside and talk with colleagues, exercise, play music, paint, pet the therapy dog we have in district, or catch up on work. No agenda needed!”
  • “We’ve been holding optional Mindful Monday gatherings after school for the past several years,” said Eric Ewald, an Iowa elementary school principal. “Last year, these were modeled as circles for the teachers who attended; this year, we are using the book 180 Days of Self-Care as our guide.”
  • “Help staff create and maintain boundaries,” said Marsilio. “I do not email on weekends, holidays, or after 6 p.m., unless it’s an emergency. I encourage staff to go home at a reasonable hour and work with my admin team to find ways to take something off plates if I have to add something for staff to do.”
  • “Pitch in and be boots on the ground, hands in the mess at all times,” said Hutchison. “We also talk a lot about it not being possible to ever complete a to-do list—and that’s fine! Regularly stopping to note ‘wins’ so far this year has been so fun to keep things light (ie. I washed my hair four times last week!) … is helpful for us to see the balance. Notes and small acts of kindness go a long way.”

Krysia Gabenski is the digital communications associate at NAESP.