It will take more than business as usual to solve the staffing shortage crisis facing our public schools, including in Montgomery County. As a long-time educator, I know firsthand the physical, emotional and mental demands needed to ensure students have every opportunity to succeed. The invisible work carried out by staff inside and outside of the classroom, such as overseeing student clubs or serving as a trusted adult, often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has operated too long on the same hiring processes and mechanisms to maintain school staffing. I believe we can do better with the staffing situation. What we need is to apply innovative strategies to achieve quality staffing for future years to come.

Let’s begin by preventing the draining of the workforce that supports our MCPS students. While I commend MCPS for its robust job recruitment effort during each summer, staff mitigation goes beyond filling job vacancies. Many seasoned staff are experiencing burnout and leaving the education profession. A recent poll conducted by the National Education Association showed that 90 percent of its members reported feeling burned out, and about half of the respondents were looking to quietly exit the teaching profession.

In light of this situation, I propose several short-term solutions to achieve an immediate increase of staff retention at MCPS.

First, let’s respond to teachers who have long vocalized their desire to be seen as true partners in our education system. We need to foster a culture of openness within MCPS, in which leadership involves our staff members in the conversation early in the decision-making process. We can achieve this through providing channels for suggestions, questions and feedback that are addressed at all levels and in a timely fashion.

Second, we need to invest in providing staff support that goes beyond just resources for new teachers. A comprehensive plan that covers both new and seasoned teaching personnel serves a long-term strategic staffing resources goal. The concerns are, but not limited to, acquisition, retention and training. We also need to look at the existing MCPS Employee Assistance Program (EAP). While it provides mental health support such as virtual counseling, we must reevaluate and assess whether staff are aware of the service and if existing EAP services are effectively addressing the challenges that staff face today. We need EAP programs that are staff-focused or else we run the risk of failing to serve their stated purposes.

Third, as a school system, we conduct a thorough vetting process on the front end when hiring teachers. Teachers undergo multiple interviews, with their resumes thoroughly examined.  However, it is just as important to thoroughly understand why staff leaves the school system. MCPS’ current short Google exit survey can hardly capture staff experiences with the system and does not provide room for collecting suggestions and comments to find better ways to retain talent. In reality, staff might be intimidated to voice their true concerns if the exit survey is conducted by the school system. We need to utilize an outside organization to capture sincere and transparent information, which can help inform MCPS in a timely manner about areas of improvement to address staff needs.

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The staff shortage is a national issue that requires a local fix. To mitigate staff shortages, one long-term solution is to continuously build and expand relationships with community partners to attract a more diverse workforce. This partnership will not only help to reach more people with desired talents and skills, but also enhance and enrich the working environment within the school system. During the last two years of the pandemic, I have brought in local non-profits such as OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates and the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association to partner with MCPS to provide resources to underserved communities by holding several successful, large-scale recruitment events. It’s important for MCPS to reach out and assess communities that they previously have not tapped into for potential new recruits.

With regards to the decline of teacher education programs, there are two potentially promising solutions/resources: job sharing and career changers. It is worth exploring arrangements where teachers split the day into morning and afternoon shifts at the elementary level, or take on only half the sessions at the secondary level. This model would not only address classroom staffing (in)flexibility challenges, it will also open up new opportunities for professional service positions such as social workers, psychologists and therapists seeking part-time work in the school system. Currently, job sharing is permitted at MCPS; it is, however, not an option in the hiring process as these professional service positions are advertised as full-time openings only.

Additionally, we must tap into people seeking career transitions. We may explore collaborations with higher education institutes such as The Universities at Shady Grove or University of Maryland to provide teaching certification for interested career changers. With tuition incentives and a built-in service component, it is possible to attract career changers with backgrounds in science, technology, and the arts into the MCPS system. Hawaii has such a program that was implemented successfully and can serve as a model for us.

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The pandemic has surely taught us that business as usual cannot meet the needs of our public school community in an ever-changing world. Therefore, it will take both innovative and time-tested efforts to attract and maintain the most qualified workforce in our school system.

Julie Yang is a 20-year educator who has served as a classroom teacher, data analyst, and college & career counselor. She is an avid community advocate, serving on the board of The Arc  Montgomery County as well as other organizations that serve underrepresented populations. She is a candidate for the Montgomery County Board of Education (District 3).