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Catholic Education

Teachers in high demand

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

As part of its unique work/study curriculum, Christo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago requires students to spend one day a week working in clerical, data processing or light assembly jobs. But the school never expected that some students would end up as “employees” in its own classrooms.

When faced with the challenge of replacing a Spanish teacher while she was on a three-week maternity leave, one solution that surfaced was to have seniors teach underclassmen. The arrangement worked so well, it was continued even after the new mother returned to the classroom.

“This makes the seniors feel needed and helps build their leadership and speaking skills,” said Nancy Castro, senior Spanish teacher.

Partly because of its unique mission, Christo Rey was able to make lemonade when faced with the sour reality of the teacher shortage currently plaguing both public and parochial schools. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 222,000 new teachers a year will be needed over the next several years to meet shortages caused by both rising enrollment and the declining number of education graduates. The result is increasingly a seller’s market for teachers, with Catholic and public schools sometimes finding themselves in direct competition to fill spots.

That has been the reality in California over the past couple of years, as an initiative of former Gov. Pete Wilson to reduce class size in the lower grades put pressure on public school districts to quickly hire new teachers. Lured by significantly higher salaries, some Catholic school teachers moved into the public system, leading some to charge public schools with “poaching.”

Whatever the cause, educational experts say all types of schools will face increased pressure over the next several years to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Across the country, Catholic schools are finding creative ways to fill empty positions. Some dioceses are working with volunteer programs, like the Inner-City Teaching Corps, and considering creative scheduling or job-sharing. In Detroit, some principals are spending a few hours a day in the classroom, retired teachers are being asked to come back and non-Catholic candidates are being accepted, except to teach religion.

In the public system, many states are looking at alternative certification models so business people can more easily move into teaching as a second career. Some dioceses also are stepping up their recruitment efforts. But most Catholic schools don’t have the resources to do what the state of Massachusetts recently announced: offer signing bonuses of up to $20,000 for new teachers willing to teach for four years in low-income public schools.

Even if they could, signing bonuses don’t get at the true motivation for teaching in Catholic schools, said Claire Helm, director of the Office of Leadership Development for the National Catholic Educational Association. “It will probably attract folks, but we’re interested in the long-term commitment of great teachers who want to make a difference,” she said. “Teachers don’t typically get into this field for the money.”

Still, Helm admits that the salary issue is a valid one. Because of their traditionally lower salaries, Catholic schools face an extra hurdle in recruiting teachers. For example, starting pay for teachers in the Chicago archdiocese is $20,350, while their public school counterparts often start at $32,000 or more, according to Dominican Sr. Georgia Luznicky, director of school personnel.

“We have to pay these people for the service they’re providing,” said Dominican Sr. Frances Nadolny, superintendent of schools for the Detroit archdiocese, where a task force has made recommendations about raising Catholic school teacher salaries. “While it’s a ministry, these very dedicated teachers need to make enough money to support themselves and their families,” she said.

But the teacher shortage trend cuts across public/private lines. Many education graduates in Michigan are being wooed by other states, Nadolny said. In fact, the public school system in Detroit is considering offering signing bonuses for new teachers.

In today’s strong economy, nearly a third of education graduates are choosing not to teach because of low salaries. “Unfortunately, 10 or 15 years ago there was a teacher glut, and lots of young people were discouraged from going into teaching because there weren’t jobs,” said Elaine Schuster, superintendent of schools for the Chicago archdiocese. “Now we’re on the other side of it, and it’s a real dilemma,” she said.

Compounding the shortage of qualified graduates is a demographic “baby bubble,” which has resulted in higher enrollments, especially in preschool, kindergarten and primary grades, Schuster said. The Chicago archdiocesan Office for Catechesis also reports a similar trend, with enrollment in parish religious education programs jumping 6 percent last year.

Given such trends, Schuster said she notices more “poaching” going on: Public school districts -- who have long seen Catholic schools as fertile soil for qualified teachers -- are recruiting Catholic school teachers and luring them away as late as Labor Day, leaving Catholic school principals high and dry just as students return from summer vacation.

Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Catholic school teachers are finding it difficult to turn down the opportunity for a big pay increase. St. Tarcissus principal Shelley Carey doesn’t blame them. After all, they have families to feed and mortgages to pay. But when she lost two teachers last year over the summer, she was forced to scramble for replacements.

“Both of the teachers who left said they didn’t really want to go,” said Carey, who has been principal at the Chicago elementary school for 10 years. “There are things we offer that public schools don’t offer, and that’s a draw. But you can’t put dinner on the table with those things.”

Luckily, Carey was able to replace her two teachers -- as well as a third open position -- with a substitute who was interested in full-time work and with candidates from the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education.

Carey wasn’t the only one sifting through résumés late last August. In the Chicago archdiocesan school system, the largest Catholic system in the country, 107 schools were looking for 195 teachers as the school year opened, according to Luznicky. “That’s unprecedented for us,” she said.

Last fall, the Detroit archdiocese reported that more than 340 teaching posts were vacant in its elementary and high schools, and similar numbers are expected this year. Catholic schools in California also have been hard hit, with legislation requiring smaller class sizes in public schools creating added competition.

Helm, of the NCEA, is reluctant to term it a full-fledged “teacher shortage” without hard data, which she is in the process of gathering. “But I do hear stories, anecdotally, that it’s affecting hiring,” she said. In response, the NCEA’s marketing plan for the next year will emphasize teacher recruiting.

Dioceses are also stepping up recruitment efforts. In Chicago, posters and pamphlets inviting prospective teachers to “Change the world one student at a time” are being distributed by the Office of Catholic Education.

Even more hopeful is the possibility of increasing Catholic school teachers’ salaries. The recommendation by the Detroit task force has gone through a number of consultative channels and is expected to be implemented soon, Nadolny said.

In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George recently announced his commitment to more money for teachers. “In conscience, I cannot indefinitely support a system that pays its teachers, on average, only half of what their peers earn in the government schools,” he said at a December news conference unveiling the results of a Special Task Force on Catholic Schools.

That report also acknowledged some of the broader financial problems facing archdiocesan schools, and the cardinal vowed to continue efforts to adequately and equitably fund Catholic schools, possibly with assistance from the public sector.

The salary issue aside, many agree that better marketing of the advantages of working in Catholic schools would help address the teacher shortage. New teachers especially appreciate smaller schools, a sense of community, professional support and the opportunity to be involved in program development, said Schuster of Chicago. “There are people who don’t realize these advantages,” she said.

Helm of the NCEA notes that many teachers prefer the holistic approach of Catholic schools. “We don’t have to apologize for our commitment to Catholic Christian values,” she said.

Nadolny of Detroit cites the working environment in Catholic schools -- including safety and a warm sense of community -- as a plus. “The biggest thing is teachers are able to talk about God and Jesus,” she said. “And they have the opportunity to grow in a faith community.”

Chicago’s marketing campaign tries to appeal to the goodwill of young men and women who want to do something meaningful with their lives. “If you want to make a difference in this world,” Luznicky said, “teaching is a good way to do it.”

As for those Christo Rey seniors who are getting a taste of teaching, some may actually decide to pursue it as a career. “Some have commented on how much work it is,” said Castro. “But others have said, ‘Wow! I could do this.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999