One Maine school district is paying teachers an hourly stipend to act as custodial staff after work. Another is trying to recruit parents to work as educational technicians. A third has 12 teacher openings it needs to fill before school starts Aug. 31.
Maine schools are struggling to fill openings after an unusual number of educators retired or quit in the past three years, leaving roles vacant as the school year approaches. Teachers and administrators blame the departures and resulting shortages on the grueling toll of teaching during the pandemic, an aging workforce and fewer new teachers.
More than 1,200 educators, including teachers, education technicians and administrators, quit in 2021 before reaching retirement age, the most in the past seven years, according to data compiled by the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. In the same year, another 821 teachers, administrators and other educators retired, a slight decrease from 2020. The most recent high point for retirements was 2019, when 916 retired, according to the state board figures.
This year, the number of teachers, education technicians and administrators who quit before reaching retirement age and those who retired are slightly outpacing recent years. Between January and July, 654 Maine educators left their jobs before reaching retirement age, compared to 569 in the same time period of 2021 and 360 in 2020.
The number of actual retirements also has increased this year; from January through July, 665 educators retired in the state. During the same period in 2021, the number was 628, and in 2020 it was 581.
This trend mirrors nationwide data, according to Penny Bishop, the dean of the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development. She also said fewer college students choose teaching as a profession.
“Prior to the pandemic, teacher education enrollment nationally was down 30%, and that decrease has gotten worse, with that gap getting bigger,” she said.
According to the Maine Department of Education’s TeachMaine plan, since 2010 the number of teachers completing educator preparation programs in the state has dropped by 53 percent. the third-largest decline in the nation. The report said that in 2019, roughly 55 percent of experienced teachers and administrators “seriously considered leaving.”
Timothy Doak, the superintendent for Regional School District 39, which covers the Caribou and Stockholm area, and Maine School Administrative District 20, which includes Fort Fairfield, said his districts have seen a drastic decrease in available teachers.
“We do have a lot of openings and we have almost no applicants for these jobs, so it’s a little scary,” he said. “Prior to the last couple of years, you almost stayed to the end of your career, and the last year or two, I’ve had fairly younger to mid-career teachers decide to move on and try something else, which is not something we saw a lot of in northern Maine.”
Currently, Doak is looking for someone to teach math and science classes at Caribou High. If his district cannot find any suitable applicants before the first day of school Monday, the plan is to ask teachers to come out of retirement. He is also considering busing students to other schools or trying online learning options.
“One of the things making me very nervous is once you lose those survival courses for your students, it won’t take too long before parents will look to other school districts for that help,” he said, though remote learning also presents challenges because internet access for students in rural areas can be difficult. “The remote learning that we did for the year during COVID almost ruined us. Connectivity was awful in Aroostook (County).”
Besides a lack of teachers, he is searching for school bus drivers, cooks and custodians. Last year the district dropped from three custodians per building to one. To help, the schools offer teachers stipends to clean the buildings at the end of the day.
“Getting clean buildings for kids to be in every day has been a real struggle,” he said.
But the thing that concerns Doak the most is the lack of young teachers the district is attracting.
“I think we’re not seeing a lot of younger students going into the teaching profession, which is worrisome down the road,” he said.
According to the United States census, Maine has the oldest average population in the United States, which has impacted the school system. The TeachMaine plan reported that 15.6 percent, or one in six teachers in the state, are over age 60. In 1999 it was 2 percent, or one in every 50 teachers.
“Maine is an older state to start with,” said Monte Selby, the Vinalhaven School principal. “Obviously the state with older workers is going to hit a point where there is a dramatic need (for employees). I think that’s one of the things going on in Maine. You are going to have a lot of retirements.”
Bishop, who has been in the education profession for nearly 20 years, said the University of Maine has seen a “considerable decrease” in the number of students interested in teaching. This can especially burden schools like Doak’s, in rural districts.
“Most teachers teach within 50 miles of where they went to high school, and we’re a rural state,” she said. “So that makes it even more challenging, because rural and isolated communities find the greatest challenge when it comes to teacher recruitment and retention.”
Sixty-three percent of public schools in the state are in rural areas, according to a study on teacher turnover rates in Maine from 2005-06 to 2016-17 by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.
To combat this challenge, the state’s Department of Education has begun to hand out more emergency and conditional licenses to those still in teaching programs, Bishop said. This reduces qualification requirements, which she thinks will hurt the school districts the program is meant to help.
“People who are alternatively certified are less likely to stay in the profession; they turn over much more quickly,” she said. “There’s a great economic cost to that turnover to the communities. Generally it costs about $10,000 to onboard a new teacher. It tends to disproportionately happen in communities that are under-resourced or have historically marginalized populations.”
According to the 2020 report from the University of Southern Maine on educator recruitment and retention, 44 percent of Maine educators have their master’s degree, which is below the 57 percent national average. This number is likely to increase with the impact of the conditional and emergency licenses.
Rural districts often have a harder time recruiting teachers, so they turn to those with conditional or emergency licenses, something Michael Zboray, the superintendent for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, has experienced. His district serves Bar Harbor, Trenton and nearby island communities.
“It’s really difficult to find somebody who wants to, you know, drive to the ferry, get on a ferry, go to the island, and then they have to come off and go back home,” he said. “You might have folks that are in school and want to be there to work toward their certification, but it’s really important that we have people who are properly educated and trained.”
Across the state, superintendents are also reporting a shortage of education technicians, also known as ed techs, who provide special support for students and assist teachers in the classroom.
In 2021, a total of 504 people in two state ed tech job categories quit, according to the Maine Public Employees Retirement System – the highest number in seven years. This year, 239 ed techs have left their jobs, a slower pace than a year ago.
In Zboray’s district in and around Mount Desert Island, a principal is trying to recruit parents to fill in as ed techs. Other school districts are offering signing incentives to attract these crucial classroom educators.
Like Doak, Zboray also plans to ask teachers to come out of retirement or have the staff juggle their responsibilities.
Multiple superintendents in the state said Special Education ed techs and teachers tend to be the hardest to find. Xavier Botana, the Portland schools superintendent, said his schools have “an acute shortage” of special education professionals. There is such a shortage that 9 percent of special education teachers in the state are under conditional certifications, according to a 2020 study on educator recruitment and retention rates by the Education Policy Research Institute.
“It will make providing compliance with our Individualized Education Plan, our special education plans, it will make that complex,” he said. “In some cases, it creates real challenges where we have specialized programs that have students require one-on-one services. That will be a huge challenge for us.”
Botana said teacher departures from his district have been higher than usual this year, prompting concerns for the future.
“It feels like this year has been sort of younger, you know, mid-career, well-respected teachers that have just decided to leave,” he said. “Some of it to leave Portland but some of it just to leave the profession. I do think that is what feels different this year than it has over the past few years.”
In the Portland school district, resignations have increased among most categories of workers. Thirty-seven employees that work in food service, custodial, transportation, technology and secretarial roles have resigned this year, a dramatic increase from the 19 during the 2021 school year and the 12 seen at the end of 2020. Resignations among ed techs have also increased; at the end of the 2022 school year 38 ed techs resigned; during 2021 16 left and in 2020 there was one departure.
Resignations among principals and assistant principals also have sharply increased in Portland. In 2022, eight principals or assistant principals have resigned compared to one in 2021 and zero in 2020. According to the TeachMaine plan, 23 percent of the public school principals and 43 percent of assistant principals in the state are in their first two years on the job.
Teacher resignations in the district hit a high in 2021, when 110 left, a jump from 78 in 2020. This year, Portland has seen 109 teachers leave the district. Retirement numbers have stayed steady, though like resignations, ed techs have departed at increasing rates.
Cornelia Brown, the superintendent for the Auburn school district, said her schools are also having trouble recruiting and retaining ed techs.
“We have had ed tech shortages for at least the last three years,” she said. “We have also had other support staff shortages in school nutrition, crossing guards and bus drivers. Pretty much most of our support staff positions.”
Brown is looking to fill 12 teacher openings before the district’s first day of school on Aug. 31, including six elementary positions, three in middle school and three in high school. She thinks the teaching jobs will be filled in time, but said applications have been less successful for more specialized roles.
“It really depends on the position,” she said. “We had very few applications for positions such as special education teachers (and) school counselors, but then we had a very good response for our administrative positions, so it depends on what the opening is.”
Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said he’s heard from superintendents across the state who say there aren’t enough qualified applicants for teaching positions.
“Other educational support professionals seem to be in greater demand. We have certainly had some shortage areas for teachers, either because of retirements or people who have left the profession,” Bailey said. “And mostly what people have been reporting to us is that the candidate pool is much smaller than what they’ve experienced in prior years.”
While most districts have had problems finding qualified applicants, Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said his schools have not had an issue finding replacements even though departures are on the rise.
In 2021, his district had seven retirements and 11 resignations; this year he’s had 14 teachers retire or resign. While Dolloff normally expects a 5 to 6 percent turnover rate, he said that in the past couple of years his district has seen around 10 percent each year.
“Usually when you get somebody in the 10-year range, they’re pretty committed to seeing it through,” he said, adding that the district “always had a teacher or two each year who has done the job for one to four years or so and they just decide it’s not for them. I don’t think the time has changed, but now instead of one or two of these teachers, there might be four or five each year.”
Dolloff said his district has not had trouble attracting new candidates, and every vacancy has been filled for this coming school year.
“We’re an outlier; we’re in very good shape,” he said. “We pay quite competitively on the statewide scale. We’re just outside of Portland here in southern Maine, our salary and benefit packages tend to be very competitive. We’re an attractive district.”
Pay has been an issue for most teachers in Maine, the lowest-paying state for teachers in New England, according to TeachMaine. Grace Leavitt, the president of the Maine Education Association, said salary has contributed to the teacher shortages.
“There’s approximately a 78 percent pay gap for classroom teachers and others in certified roles, meaning that professionals in other professions who have comparable education and expectations are earning roughly 20 percent more than a teacher’s salary,” she said.
“A lot of support professionals just don’t feel like their roles are so essential. They don’t feel that they’re recognized and respected, and they’re not paid anywhere near what they need to be paid. You see the signs of the fast-food places that, you know, are paying way more per hour than some of our support professionals have.”
Maine’s 1999 teacher salaries were higher than those in 2018 after adjusting for inflation, according to a 2020 study on educator recruitment and retention from the University of Southern Maine, though that recently changed when Gov. Janet Mills approved a minimum teacher wage to $40,000. Despite this increase, there are other financial disincentives to teaching in the state, according to Bishop, the UMaine dean.
One drawback to teaching in Maine is the Windfall Elimination Act, which says teachers do not buy into Social Security, instead relying on their pensions once they retire.
“Years ago, when someone entered the field of teaching, they stayed in any profession, for that matter, their whole lives,” Bishop said. “It’s just not what people do anymore. They don’t go into one profession and stay there for 30 years. Thirty years ago it made sense because they were teachers their whole lives, so they would come out with a pension that was sufficient and comparable to Social Security.”
But teachers in the state now are less likely to stay in their field, and delaying their ability to buy into Social Security puts them at a severe disadvantage in planning for retirement.
“I’ve had a number of people actually tell me that they chose not to teach in Maine because of this problem,” Bishop said. “There’s a pretty significant financial disincentive to be a teacher in Maine for this generation of educators.”
Leavitt also believes a lack of appreciation and respect for teachers is contributing to the retention rate for educators in the state.
“You’ve seen some of the attacks at school board meetings over the past several months, especially in the minority of people,” she said. “I do feel that the vast majority of people in our community support our educators, but to be questioning curriculum … the teachers are working with the experts that are trained in our fields and so there should be respect for the training and the professionalism that we have.”
Leavitt said the Maine Education Association has warned the state about a decline in teachers for upwards of 10 years. It’s an important issue, she said, because it affects future generations so deeply.
“There’s a misperception that I hate even saying the quote, but some people think that ‘Oh, anybody can teach,’ ” she said. “But that’s not true. We want to be sure we have qualified professionals working with our students. And so that is a real struggle to try to be sure that those needs are being met for our students.”
Ellie Wolfe is an investigative reporting intern for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email with feedback and other story ideas: email@example.com.