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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Culture and climate
How established culture plays a role in recovering from staffing shortages
By Antoinette Gutierrez | September | October 2022
We have all used words like “unprecedented” and phrases like “learning to pivot.” We have even called on previous language to describe what we all just went through during the shut-down portion of the pandemic “the recovering stage” and up to the current “new normal.” Although we have faced a multitude of challenges throughout the pandemic and exposed a lot of areas in which education can improve, such as equity in resources and access, mental health and the dependence on the school system by many families, there was one that really caught us by surprise — the shortage of staffing when we returned.
The excitement of returning was felt by all who had survived the time either virtually meeting or in a hybrid model with the struggle of connecting to those we could not see. As a principal, it was difficult to ensure the staff felt supported and cared for from a distance. The teachers felt the same for students who had disappeared or did not attend regularly. Staff also contended with their own families being at home and their schooling. Students, of course, craved their friends and the socialization they came to expect. Needless to say, the prospect of returning to some semblance of normalcy was palpable in all of us.
The problem
We opened up! Along with the additional struggles of re-acclimating to the school/work schedule; COVID protocols that added a tremendous amount of work, stress, and fear; and the political environment playing out at districts and sites, we found a more immediate problem- staffing. There were so many reasons that all came together at the same time to create this perfect storm. We had COVID quarantine protocols, the fear of the health and safety of the employees themselves, the fear of being around so many people after so long, the divide of beliefs about vaccines and masks and then the normal reasons people are out, such as illness, family events, etc. We also had larger than usual amounts of death and loss across the organization.
This did not affect only one group. It ranged from clerical support, special education instructional aides, teachers and other administration which caused a fear that we may not even be able to continue to run. Those that were able to show up were overworked, stressed out and overwhelmed with the constant uncertainty.
The silver lining
Although the origin is unknown, there is a saying: “Necessity is the mother of all inventions.” This world of unknown allowed a lot of creative solutions to be had to ensure that kids arrived each day and were served by the educational institution. Districts up and down the state had procedures where top leadership brushed off their teaching and learning credentials and jumped into the classroom to sub for teachers. We saw directors, superintendents, principals and any other district leaders getting into the trenches. Although this was a widespread initial response and solution, we all knew it was not going to last long term. Who will lead and navigate the districts and sites through this if they were in the classroom every day?
The next logical solution came from human resources. Districts started looking at their resources and filling short-term and long term positions. They looked to their guest teachers (subs;, they looked to interns, alumni and community to start filling in the gaps. Different districts started looking at daily pay rates, period coverage pay for secondary and other negotiated items to try to lure substitutes to the district. We started seeing a disparity between sites within a district who were able to staff their own positions each day and ones who continued to depend on coverage from leadership. After speaking to various staff members, I discovered it was the culture of a school (possibly district) that made that huge difference.
I was principal of a comprehensive high school in a highly urban district and city. With over 50,000 students throughout the district, there were many options for people to choose where they subbed or ultimately took a position. So, not only were we in competition with other districts, but with other sites within our own. We only requested coverage from district level leadership twice. Here is why I believe that was the case:
1. Staff didn’t want to be gone. The more consistent the staff was, the less coverage you need. It sounds so simple, but when there is a culture of love and appreciation for the work that they do, they want to come to work every day. The only absences we had when we first returned were from mandatory COVID exposure quarantines (and staff were a little bitter they were sent home).
2. Guest teachers/subs want to come to your site. The reputation of how you treat people or how “bad” the assignment will be definitely plays a role in whether substitutes, both certificated and classified, pick up those vacant jobs. When I first started in 2016, it was a school with a reputation of not being a good place to sub. According to one resident sub I asked this year, “the school went from a school that could hardly fill its sub positions to being one of the most sought after sub assignments. Thank you for being so supportive of the subs and making us feel like we are an integral part of the SBHS team.”
3. Building capacity and a pipeline was crucial. We had previously been supporting our classified staff as well as the district having a “grow your own” program. During this time, we had two instructional aides who had been working on getting their teaching credentials actually begin as intern teachers for vacant positions at our site. This was amazing for us since they knew the students, wanted to be there and had a support system already in place.
4. Creativity was necessary. The leadership team, and staff were strong in problem solving as well. We ended up finding student teachers who had been placed at our site who were a perfect fit for teaching positions. This helped us fill vacancies with a more permanent person, reducing the inconsistency of the daily subs. We were also able to hire student interns (former students or local students) who assisted in areas in which we were short staffed. This included technology support, clerical support or classroom support. All the while interviewing and recruiting.
As a principal, it was difficult to ensure the staff felt supported and cared for from a distance. The teachers felt the same for students who had disappeared or did not attend regularly.
5. There were structures of support for new teachers. We had created the “New Cardinal Academy” that was a support group, training group and an overall resource for anyone new to the site. I met with them monthly to answer questions, build relationships and get them caught up on previous trainings so the whole staff had a common language and they could bond with one another. At a high school, it would have been rare for the various departments to naturally have interacted with such frequency. This helped to increase the pride in the school and their connectedness to it which we know increases work satisfaction.
6. Relationships helped us all get through it together. Teacher, admin and staff all had a high burnout rate that was sweeping the nation. With emotions and fear high throughout the country, parents and students having lost a lot of the relationships they had with the schools, there were many district depleted with resignations. Our culture (although not perfect) was one where we knew that we were all in this together and that it was a difficult time and year but it was not only us. We took one day at a time. We loved each other and held onto that.
There is no way we would have been able to weather this pandemic as well as we did, in spite of all the struggles, if we had not already built a culture and climate of acceptance and love among the staff. And although these lessons were exacerbated because of COVID, they are essential to creating an environment for students. When the adults want to show up, it changes the experience for the students and ultimately the outcome.
Antoinette Gutierrez is a principal in San Bernardino City Unified School District
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