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US school districts finding unique solutions for shortage of teachers

Posted at 4:36 PM, Nov 18, 2019

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – Schools across the nation are having trouble filling teacher jobs – so districts are coming up with unique solutions.

The Casa Grande Union High School District has looked overseas to help fill their teacher positions – which led us to Melvin Injosa.

“If you ask me to dance I’ll suck, if you ask me to sing I’ll suck more, but if you want me to do science, physics, I’ll pour myself out,” said Melvin Injosa, teacher at Vista Grande High School in Casa Grande, Arizona.

He teaches physics and chemistry and moved to Arizona from the Philippines a few years ago. He’s in the U.S. through a J-1 Visa teacher program, which allows him to teach and learn in America for up to five years. Injosa is currently in his fourth year.

“It’s the best experience so far, for me,” he said, after moving here with his wife who also teaches at the school.

“Many of our math and science jobs are filled by teachers from the Philippines,” said Steve Bebee, Superintendent of the Casa Grande Union High School District.

Of the over 200 teachers they oversee, 18 are teaching through the J-1 Visa teacher program. Ten others finished their terms last year.

“There is not an abundance of teachers applying in our district and coming our way,” Bebee explained.

Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina have some of the highest numbers of J-1 Visa teachers, and that number rises year over year. Arizona had 187 in 2018, while North Carolina had the most with 522 participants, according to the U.S. State Department.

But the new approach to hiring qualified teachers hasn’t been a hit with everyone.

“Do we cut out jobs for people that are already in the U.S.? And we are not, because if we had those positions we wouldn’t have to look,” Bebee said.

Just under 21 percent of teacher jobs in Arizona were still vacant a few weeks into the 2018-2019 school year, accounting for about 1,443 positions, according to a survey of 150 schools by the Arizona Personnel Admin Association completed in August 2019.

“For teachers in Arizona, you’re lucky to get one applicant,” said Justin Wing, director of human resources for the Washington Elementary School District. “It hit us pretty hard.”

Wing created the report that shows how the lack of teachers applying for open positions has impacted class sizes and the need for long-term substitute teachers over the years.

Wing explained that Arizona is top five in highest class sizes across the nation. And the average teacher salary in the state is around $4,000 lower than the national average, with Arizona sitting at $33,973, according to the Learning Policy Institute in 2018.

The combo of high class sizes and low pay has made it difficult to attract qualified educators in a lot of states.

“I think a big issue is related to working conditions,” Leanne Abushar said.

Abushar is an elementary school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and the president of Phoenix Elementary Classroom Teachers Association.

“Pay, working conditions, benefits, all of those things link back to teacher recruitment and retention,” she said.

Abushar and the rest of the association are working on getting a contract in place for better pay, and other demands for teachers. She says many people just aren't applying for teacher jobs because they aren't appealing to applicants.

“Everybody has been stuck with trying to find remedies,” Bebee said.

"Every district is prioritizing their recruiting efforts differently, because if all of us are doing the same thing, we’re hitting still that same pool,” Wing explained.

Which brings us back to Melvin Injosa’a chemistry class. Despite low wages, he currently gets paid more in this country than he would in his own. About five times more than his salary back in the Philippines.

Melvin understands he has a limited time in the United States, but he makes the most of it.

“Even if I only have five years here, I think I learned a lot,” he said.