Cynthia Hanson had been retired for a little over a year and a half when the principal of the school she used to work at, Lake of the Woods Elementary, called about a vacancy. At first Hanson was reluctant to return due to her age and risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately she decided to return to teaching until the end of the school year, saying the district is unlikely to find a special education teacher in a timely manner.
Hanson said fellow retired teachers told her she was crazy.
“They kept telling me, ‘You really want to go back? You really think it’s smart to do this?’” Hanson said. “I had some concerns and I’m an older person and I told them that if I came back and I found that I wasn’t able to do it or I didn’t feel comfortable doing anymore, that I would be leaving the position.”
With recent staffing shortages in schools across the state, districts have taken various measures to adapt, including emailing parents about filling temporary substitute roles, adding days on to winter break and reaching out to retired teachers like Hanson to fill in for long-term positions.
Retired teachers like Hanson returning to school isn’t exactly new — schools have long maintained relationships with their retired teachers to fill in substitute roles. But recently there has been a significant uptick in recruiting efforts and the number of retirees now filling in the substitute positions as the number of job openings in schools soars.
“This year, we’re just seeing vacancies like we’ve never seen before,” said Kenyatta McCarty, Executive Director of Human Resources at St. Paul Public Schools. “And so we’re looking at what are different ways that we can reach out to pools of people to support… our needs.”
In Minnesota, substitute teachers can be divided into two categories: short-term and long-term. While all substitute teachers are required to have a four year degree, long-term substitute teachers are required to be certified teachers with some level of expertise in the subject they are assigned to teach. That makes retired teachers ideal candidates for filling in long-term vacancies.
Al Sowers, Vice President of Teachers on Call, a staffing agency based in Bloomington that services the Midwest and Northwest parts of the country, said his company has seen an increase in retired teachers returning to the classroom. Forty percent of the company’s current staffing pool is now retired teachers. It was thirty percent last year. “10 percent is quite a bit when you look at the size of our pool, which is close to 10,000,” Sowers said.
While many districts, like St. Paul, rely on staffing agencies like Teachers on Call, other districts have made efforts to reach out to teachers on their own. Minneapolis Public Schools began contacting retired teachers last spring and over the course of a few months the district has sent out 500 emails to retired teachers.
“Substitute teachers are becoming more of a permanent workforce solution for schools. And as a result, we are seeing a spike in retirees coming in,” Sowers said.
Even with stepped-up recruitment, the number of retirees opting to return is still not enough to alleviate current substitute shortages. Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said schools need to fill more support staff roles to convince more retirees to return.
At a press conference last Wednesday, Specht addressed the impact of the current substitute teacher shortages.
“During COVID it was a little scary. They were not sure of the surroundings or what kind of space they were going into. But what they’re seeing now are so many challenges that they just aren’t interested in taking on anymore. Class sizes are through the roof, and unmet needs of students are on the rise,” Specht said. “Getting some more support, I think, would be a help in bringing back some of those retirees to help us with our substitute teaching.”
Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said one of the barriers schools are facing with recruiting more retirees is health concerns.
“Some retirees just don’t feel safe with the pandemic and in returning to the classroom,” Croonquist said.
To help compensate, some districts have raised their pay rate for substitute teachers, including Minneapolis Public Schools and St. Paul.
“We have districts that on any given day have several dozen classrooms open that they’re not able to cover. And so it really is a crisis situation. And so they’re turning over every stone they can to try to figure out how to expand the pool,” Croonquist said.