Sarasota County Schools’ percentage of vacant teacher positions remains lower than average in the state of Florida.
According to Florida Press Secretary Bryan Griffin, statewide teacher vacancies are approximately 2.4% of positions.
Superintendent of Sarasota County Schools Terry Connor said on Aug. 22 that 2% of teaching positions within the district remained unfilled.
Meanwhile, Connor said there are ways the district is able to fill that remaining 2%
“We've been really good at being able to leverage our current staff members who may not be attached to students,” Connor said, noting that while the ideal situation is to have a single teacher assigned to each classroom, long-term substitutes and other alternatives are possible.
Nonetheless, teachers said a number of challenges affect the profession, contributing to the vacancies that do exist, even as Sarasota remains a relatively robust district.
Stretch and learn
Angela Stephanides, a geometry teacher of about 20 years who currently teaches at Riverview High School said in the math field, there are times when teachers may need to teach outside their content area, something they may be uncomfortable with.
“You have to be willing to just jump in and learn; you can't be scared of not knowing, and you have to be able to go ask for help when you need it,” she said.
Luckily, she feels supported by administration.
“I love Riverview, the administration's great, they're very supportive, and they're very understanding. I really just love teaching high school,” she said.
She said another factor is class sizes, which have increased over time, at the same time many kids are often absent or are struggling.
“Testing is just outrageous,” she said, stating teachers may feel liable for students who do not put the effort in to perform well, especially in a subject like geometry that they must pass in order to graduate.
The job involves long hours, including working to midnight each night, she said.
“If you want to do it right, you have to put everything into it… and you have to genuinely care about the kids,” she said.
Mary Holmes, a teacher of 35 years who teaches special education at Oak Park Elementary, said the current political climate is affecting how teachers perform their jobs in a way it did not in the past.
“Things have just really whittled away, and then there's just been so much political influence in the past several years, it's not a profession I recognize anymore,” she said.
She said one example was after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, she played a video on the topic for students.
“And now all of a sudden, the community is blowing up and people are calling the school board and saying that it's inducing white guilt, and I’m like, did you watch the same thing that I did? If was so innocuous, I couldn’t believe we were talking about the same thing,” she said.
She said teachers must now censor topics they previously did not and have recently had to take down signs on topics like tolerance, patience, forgiveness, and acceptance.
“All of a sudden, we had to take down all these huge signs that had really scary ideas like, tolerance, patience, forgiveness, acceptance, because SEL — social emotional learning — was inducing white guilt.”
Holmes said she makes her best effort to make all students feel welcome, although sexual identity now lies at the forefront of discussion around schools.
“I have pictures of my family on my desk, but a teacher who's gay, may not,” she said. “They’re certainly not allowed to answer the question, who's that?”
Jessica Thomason, who recently enrolled with the district as a substitute, said she is grateful for her other career as a pharmacist.
"I know that if I get fired for playing the wrong movie in class accidentally, I would still have a means of having a job,” she said.
Stephanides said these kinds of issues do not impact math significantly, although she is having to redo the process for introducing a new textbook after finding out it was not followed correctly. This means students could end up switching to the new curriculum mid-year.
School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler said the main factor in teaching shortages is behavioral issues with students rooted in mental health and other issues and said her conversations with teachers reflect this being the case.
“The fact is that the teacher shortage is national, in very progressive Democrat states and very red Republican states with all kinds of different legislation…” she said. “I don't dismiss how challenging it is to be a teacher these days, because it seems as though society in general is asking our educators to solve all of society's problems, and oh, by the way, teach them.”
Ziegler said data shows improving literacy should be the main priority.
“That is the tide that lifts all boats,” she said.
For Thomason, the safety net of her role as a pharmacist is also financial in nature.
“There's probably a ton of reasons for teacher shortage, but I don't really feel like many young people with families can accept the price of insurance for their kids,” she said.
Connor said there are many creative or innovative solutions for filling gaps in the district.
He said 95% of vacant classrooms are picked up by substitutes, and in critical positions, the district tries to prioritize long-term substitutes, while the remaining positions can be filled by other staff like an instructional coach who is not tied to students.
Students without a full-time substitute can also join another classroom or receive video instruction overseen by a substitute, or other teachers can pitch in to help, he said.
The school has some openings for some paraprofessionals, which it is currently using contracted services to fill.
School board vice chair Karen Rose said this year, the school did not quite meet its expected enrollment, which will help with the shortages. Nonetheless, she said having substitutes fill roles can be challenging, especially with topics like math and science.
“Every content area is important,” Rose said.
Connor said he believes teachers deserve more elevations in their pay scale.
“Teachers work more than just eight hours, they really work more than just 10 months,” he said, noting they perform a great amount of work during the summer in preparation for the next year.
Ziegler said the board has done a “tremendous job” in the area of pay, with record raises each year, while it is always evaluating its offerings to find out how it can improve benefits.
“Our health benefits are something we pride ourselves on," she said, stating that while an "unfortunate" rate increase did take place this year, the district provides a "very robust offering of benefits."
Board member Tim Enos also suggested raising pay.
“I know that we have to be more competitive in that arena, because our parents and our students deserve to have the very best, and I know that currently we are behind other counties in our starting pay,” he said.
Connor said it is important that Sarasota leverage local colleges and universities to ensure internship opportunities including open contracts for interns. He said he is also looking at Grow-Your-Own programs, including for paraprofessionals who want to become teachers.
“We're not 100% where we want to be, but we're at 98%,” Connor said. “And that's a manageable number where we can continue to try to hire, but also be pretty confident that we're able to ensure kids are having that continuity of learning.”