Exploring the teacher shortage: Hillsborough educators speak out about lack of support

Students sleep in class as substitutes cover vacancies during the teacher shortage.

By Zaniya Graham Education Beat Reporter

HILLSBOROUGH, Fla.- One of the biggest reasons for the current teacher shortage in Hillsborough County is a lack of support amongst educational staff, but the definition of support changes depending on who you ask.

The U.S. has been battling a teacher shortage, for different reasons, for years.  Consequently, larger school districts like Hillsborough County are struggling to maintain the educational dynamic necessary for students to thrive.

As the third largest school district in Florida, and the seventh largest in the nation, Hillsborough County Public Schools are desperate to attract new teachers, and retaining staff is becoming almost impossible.

At the start of the 2023-24 school year, HCPS had over 500 teacher vacancies, down from 691 vacancies last school year. That leaves classrooms full of students, overworked teachers, disorganized sub plans, frustrated staff, and an overall difficult school year for all.

The Florida Education Association listed several reasons for the shortages, including pay, with Florida ranking in the bottom five nationally for teacher salaries, lack of support, lack of flexibility in instruction and the need to “teach to the test,” lack of multi-year contracts for teachers and overcrowded classrooms.

Lack of support, the most vaguely explained reason, is what Hillsborough County teachers agree makes it difficult to attract and retain dedicated and qualified education professionals.  Each educator shared different thoughts about what lack of support means to them.

Diana Wohlgamuth, the math department head at Lennard High School, says she hasn’t had a full staff of math teachers in 3 years.

Wohlgamuth has been an educator for nearly two decades. In her time as a department head, she has noticed that the county is lacking in providing support to new teachers who are entering the profession.

She mentioned how when a new teacher starts in Hillsborough County, there is a person from the district who is assigned a mentor, along with a dozen other people across the district, making it difficult for the mentor to properly provide support to newcomers.

“Last year one of our new teachers said she saw the mentor once in a semester. I feel like new teachers definitely need more support to keep them going,” she said.  

She believes if the county reinforces a better mentor system to support new teachers as they navigate a new career field, it won’t be as difficult to motivate new educators to continue in their profession.

Part of the problem lies in the district’s inability to retain teachers. Those who do become teachers leave the profession sooner. The FEA reported that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent of Florida’s new teachers left the classroom in their first five years in the profession, state records show.

According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, deans of colleges of education said the number 1 reason for dropping enrollment numbers was the perception of teaching as an undesirable career. That perception is likely based on complaints about a lack of professional autonomy and low wages, the deans said.

 “As I communicate with all my friends who are still teaching, I really don’t have any regrets because it’s[education] not getting better. If anything, it’s just getting worse each year” said Sam Ziss, a former HCPS teacher.

Ziss is referring to student behavioral issues and a lack of support from the administration.

He taught high school students for 8 and a half years before he decided to go back to school to pursue a career in civil engineering. He was unsatisfied as a teacher and resigned in hopes of doing something he actually enjoyed.

“When kids are acting out and the teacher has no option to discipline them, and we need to go to the administrators, they wouldn’t supply that support. There were just never any consequences for what the kids did, and I was feeling that I could not make any changes in them,” Ziss said.

Today’s culture is leaning towards a softer approach to disciplining young people in school. Teachers are left to stand by and warn students about administrative action for punishment, however, after those referrals, they usually are left to deal with the same disruptions and disobedience.

Never being told no or having to answer for their mistakes, having as much authority as adults, and gliding through early years of life without taking accountability for their actions is frustrating for the teachers that really care, and can have dangerous consequences for those students in the future.

In addition to a better mentorship program, and better disciplinary action, teachers can be better supported if the district hires qualified professionals rather than underqualified and undertrained individuals.

According to the Florida Department of Education, “Districts prefer to hire teachers certified in the appropriate field(s) for the courses they teach, when possible, to ensure students receive instruction at the level of rigor measured by statewide, standardized assessments.”

However, substantial proportions of teachers who are not certified in the appropriate field are being hired to teach.

“For someone like myself who is certified and has done this job for a long time, they’re a strain on me,” veteran educator Joe Diaz said.

Diaz has been a teacher for 17 years, spending 9 of those in the Hillsborough County Public School district. Diaz mentions that the county is filling hard-to-fill positions with people who don’t have the same skills as the average teacher, making his job harder because he then must try to catch them up.

“These teachers are coming in without the training that they need, whether it’s in classroom management, or curriculum, or anything. So, I’m literally almost like a teacher for the teacher which isn’t my job. It almost is more difficult, and I would rather not have that person there because then I don’t have to babysit and make sure they’re not doing something I don’t want them to do,” he said.

The county may be filling positions, but teachers are frustrated picking up the slack from those appointed people who aren’t properly doing the job. The solution is not to hire unqualified people but to properly prepare new aspiring teachers so they qualify for the job at hand.

Hillsborough County Public School teachers say that in order to address the growing teacher and staff shortage crisis in Hillsborough County Public Schools, lawmakers must instill better support systems for all educational personnel. Ways they believe the district can better support staff include providing needed mentorship programs to new teachers, considering better disciplinary action for disobedient students, and hiring more qualified people to teach, to name a few.

Ultimately, the district must listen to the professionals who are in the schools every day to make sure they provide the necessary support that teachers desire.