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Cali Calmécac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson engages his class in a discussion about history and the need to learn from our past to change the future during his morning class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Credential requirement changes are making it easier to become a teacher in Sonoma County. What's being done to retain them?

Principal Patricia Chadwick filled her final open teaching position just days before the start of school at Cali Calmécac Language Academy, a Spanish-English bilingual school in Windsor Unified School District that teaches transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.

This is “not the norm,” she said. “This year has definitely been the most challenging in terms of staffing.”

Chadwick said Cali Calmécac typically has its staff locked in for the following school year by early- or mid-June. Even last year, with the pandemic still lingering, all teaching positions were filled by the end of June, she said.

But things are different this year, and it’s not just in Windsor.

Cali Calmecac 5th graders in teacher Shjon Gilbertson wait while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th graders in teacher Shjon Gilbertson wait while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

A week after the first day of classes, Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, had 19 vacant full-time teaching positions. The district added about 70 full-time equivalent jobs since last year.

Throughout the county, state, and country, schools are having trouble finding enough teachers to fill classrooms. The phrase “teacher shortage” has become ubiquitous. But the issue can’t be explained by simple supply and demand. Many educators argue there’s not a shortage of teachers, but a shortage of teachers willing and able to work under increasingly stressful and unpredictable conditions, often without corresponding increases in time, help and pay.

In recent years, the state has made it easier to become a teacher, by loosening requirements for certain credentials. But in the delicate transition out of the pandemic and amid a national and global time of tumult, kids are in dire need of capable and supported teachers. The state and county are trying to increase the supply, but then they face the challenge of getting new teachers to stay.

Vacancies are not a new problem in Sonoma County or in California. Statewide, retirements increased 26% in the second half of 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The following year, 2021, saw almost as many teacher retirements as the year after the Great Recession, when many experienced teachers were bought out as districts sought to reduce costs.

“It’s a necessary step to make sure students have teachers in their classrooms. But what are we going to do to help mentor and support these new teachers who are coming in with temporary or provisional credentials?” Cali Calmécac Language Academy Principal Patricia Chadwick

Rachel Steiner quit her job as a music teacher at Old Adobe Elementary in Petaluma a few months into the pandemic. She has a weak immune system, and was worried for her health.

“When you teach music in an elementary school, you see the whole school,” she said. “Half the school would come to me on Thursday and the other half would come on Friday.”

Since leaving Old Adobe, Steiner has mostly taught private lessons. She misses teaching hundreds of kids, but doesn’t have any plans to return to the classroom.

“Teachers [have] always been stretched in terms of how we use our time,” Steiner said. It's always like every minute is accounted for. You end up using your own time to prep and do things and, you know, it seemed like more with COVID … And to me, that almost seems like, I mean, where would that time come from?”

Even before the pandemic, vacancies were increasing throughout the state, prompting changes to teacher credential requirements. In 2020, California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing waived fees for certain tests and relaxed some requirements for subject matter competency exams.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson engages his class in a discussion about history and the need to learn from our past to change the future during his morning class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson engages his class in a discussion about history and the need to learn from our past to change the future during his morning class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Between the 2012-13 and 2019-20 school years, the number of teachers statewide who had not completed the requirements for full teaching credentials almost tripled, to more than 13,000 annually.

These changes aren’t just happening at the state level. While he couldn’t point to exact numbers, John Laughlin, associate superintendent of human resources at the Sonoma County Office of Education, said the county has issued a lot of temporary and provisional teaching credentials this year in response to teacher vacancies across the county.

“It’s been higher this year,” Laughlin said. “Because, I mean, districts rights now are trying to plug those holes. So they come to us.”

Sonoma County schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said the problem is likely to get worse.

“We have this abundance of teachers retiring, many of them boomer teachers that are going out of the system with 30 years or more experience,” Herrington said. “And yet we don't have a feeder system where we're getting new teachers coming in from the university at the same rate.”

In high demand, but undersupported

In recent years, the county education office and Sonoma State University’s School of Education established and bolstered programs geared toward recruiting new teachers to the profession. These programs fall in line with statewide incentives for prospective teachers.

Herrington, through the education office, founded the North Coast School of Education in 2015. The organization offers several teaching and administrative credential programs and provides various scholarships to increase the demographic diversity of the region’s educators.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson directs his class into one line while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson directs his class into one line while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Its Teacher Induction Program — which allows those with preliminary teaching credentials to earn full credentials — is the most popular. In 2021-22, 560 people enrolled, up from 506 in 2019-20.

SSU’s School of Education has also been working to diversify the regional teaching pool through its PUERTA (Preparing Underrepresented Educators to Realize their Teaching Ambitions) program, which is a finalist for a national education award.

Maria Rios-Zendejas graduated from SSU’s single subject credential program this spring, and just started her first year as a ninth- and 11th-grade ethnic studies and English teacher at Piner High School in Santa Rosa. She enjoyed her time at SSU, but said it was also stressful.

“It’s just very heavy to be a full-time teacher and in the program,” she said. “Getting another source of income is difficult. A lot of people just saved, like I did, and didn’t work throughout the program, even though that was really, really, really, really hard on me, to be honest.”

Rios-Zendejas earned scholarships and was able to get some financial help from her family. “Otherwise, there’s no way I could have become a teacher,” she said.

Teachers with credentials in special education, non-English languages, math, and science are in the highest demand across Sonoma County, according to Laughlin, the associate superintendent. The requirements for special education and bilingual authorization credentials are more involved than most others in the state.

“In many immigrant communities, there are people who are teachers in their native countries, but who lack credentials. We need to find those people and get them in classrooms.” University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education dean Pedro Noguera

This means bilingual schools like Cali Calmécac in Windsor often have smaller candidate pools to pull from.

Last month, the California State Assembly decided not to appropriate funds for Senate Bill 952, which would have expanded or established dual-language immersion programs in at least 20 school districts around the state.

“We’re now all vying for the same candidates,” said Patricia Chadwick, the Cali Calmécac principal.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson gives a thumbs up to his class while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson gives a thumbs up to his class while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)

Valeria Garcia Buenrostro graduated from SSU with a multiple subject teaching credential in 2017. She’s lived most of her life in California, but both her parents are from México, and her first language was Spanish. She remembers being one of only two students in her third grade class to speak Spanish, and said it felt isolating. But her teacher had a huge impact.

“She created this safe space for me to practice English, so she was my inspiration,” Garcia Buenrostro said. “So now I want to do what she did for me. I want to make students feel safe in school.”

Garcia Buenrostro loves teaching, but said she’s overworked. “We don’t have time to reply to emails,” she said.

She said it would be helpful to have instructional aides in the classroom and more time for planning.

Pedro Noguera, K-12 education policy expert and dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said rigid requirements for bilingual authorization credentials might lead schools to miss out on great teachers, especially in a county like Sonoma, with a large population of Latin American immigrants.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson gives a “Star Trek”-inspired high five to a student  while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson gives a “Star Trek”-inspired high five to a student while heading to the multipurpose room for picture day at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“In many immigrant communities, there are people who are teachers in their native countries, but who lack credentials,” Noguera said. “We need to find those people and get them in classrooms.”

Chadwick, from Cali Calmécac, said she doesn’t know of any particular examples of this, but “I don’t think the idea is far-fetched.”

Noguera, Chadwick, and Laughlin all agree that removing some of the red tape for new teachers is a good thing.

“It’s a necessary step to make sure students have teachers in their classrooms,” Chadwick said. “But what are we going to do to help mentor and support these new teachers who are coming in with temporary or provisional credentials?”

‘We wanted to be teachers in the classroom more than anything’

Every current or former educator interviewed for this story said they chose to be a teacher out of passion, not one mentioned pay or prestige. Some said they were inspired by their own teachers, others just felt called to work with kids.

For those who left the profession in recent years, their specific reasons varied, but there was one thing they all shared — they were stretched too thin.

“I'm seeing good teachers that make daily impacts in the lives of our students having to leave because of money. It's just the reality of, you know, this profession and how it's viewed in our country.” Cali Calmécac Language Academy 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson

The added pressures of the pandemic — teaching remotely and then in-person again, dealing with stressed parents, and their own mental and emotional fatigue and that of their students — sent many teachers over the edge.

Eli Weinzveg, former teacher and assistant principal at Roseland Public Schools, “pulled the plug” in January, after more than a decade as an educator.

“You're not just a teacher. You know, you're going to be a mentor. You're going to be a therapist for some of these kids, whether you like it or not, because they're going to connect with you,” Weinzveg said.

He said it was a tough decision to leave, but there came a point when he couldn’t do it any longer. The pandemic brought a dire substitute teacher shortage, which left Weinzveg to fill in the gaps.

“I was a substitute teacher every single day,” he said. “And so, not only was I trying to be an assistant principal and run a school, but I was fighting with one hand tied behind my back.”

But not everyone is leaving, and it’s not just young people who are filling vacancies. In 2019, after 20 years working at Comcast, Shjon Gilbertson decided to follow his long-deferred dream of becoming a teacher.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson engages his class in a discussion about history and the need to learn from our past to change the future during his morning class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher.  (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson engages his class in a discussion about history and the need to learn from our past to change the future during his morning class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“Life’s too short, you know. Go chase what you love,” he said. “This is the lesson I’m trying to teach my children with my own actions. They see their dad at 50 years old leave a lifelong career to do something new, and also kind of struggle at it. But it gets better every single day.”

Gilbertson began his credential program at SSU in fall 2019. He had just started student-teaching transitional kindergartners when the pandemic hit.

“So I had to finish all the requirements for my preliminary credential, and I had to do it over Zoom with kids,” he said.

He recounted the entire experience with glee.

“For my cohort going through the credential program, we were actually a pretty tight group,” he said. “ … We were all just, you know, very excited. We wanted to be teachers in the classroom more than anything.”

Now he is. After finishing his credential in 2020, Gilbertson began teaching fifth grade at Cali Calmécac. He loves his students and his job, but he also understands why so many teachers are leaving.

“I'm seeing good teachers that make daily impacts in the lives of our students having to leave because of money,” he said. “It's just the reality of, you know, this profession and how it's viewed in our country.”

While reducing the barriers to entry for new teachers helps reduce staffing shortages in the short term, the stress that drives so many out of the profession remains a major problem.

Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson poses with his class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022.  Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Cali Calmecac 5th grade teacher Shjon Gilbertson poses with his class at the Windsor school Aug. 25, 2022. Gilbertson changed careers three years ago to follow his dream to become a teacher. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“I just hope that we can continue to value educators and attract new talents,” Gilbertson said, “because honestly, you know, I'm worried about what it's going to look like five years down the road or 10 years down the road.”

You can reach Staff Writer Elena Neale-Sacks at elena.neale-sacks@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @elenaneale17.

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