Opinion: We need more than business as usual to alleviate the staff shortage

It will take more than business as usual to solve the staffing shortages facing our public schools, including in Montgomery County. As a long-time educator, I know firsthand the physical, emotional, and mental demands required to ensure students have every opportunity to succeed. The invisible work done by staff inside and outside the classroom, e.g. Activities such as supervising student clubs or acting as a trusted adult often go unnoticed or unappreciated. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has used the same hiring procedures and mechanisms to retain school staff for too long. I believe that we can improve the personnel situation. What we need is the application of innovative strategies to achieve quality staffing for years to come.

Let’s start by preventing the brain drain that supports our MCPS students. While I commend MCPS for their robust staffing efforts each summer, the staff reduction goes beyond filling vacancies. Many experienced employees suffer from burnout and leave the educational profession. A recent poll by the National Education Association found that 90 percent of its members said they felt burned out, and about half of those polled said they aspired to quietly quit the teaching profession.

Given this situation, I propose several short-term solutions to achieve an immediate increase in employee retention at MCPS.

First of all, let’s answer the teachers who have long expressed their desire to be seen as real partners in our educational system. We must foster a culture of openness within MCPS, where leadership involves our employees early in the decision-making process. We can achieve this by providing channels for suggestions, questions and feedback that are addressed in a timely manner at all levels.

Second, we must invest in providing staff support that goes beyond mere resources for new teachers. A comprehensive plan, covering both new and experienced faculty, serves a long-term strategic human resources goal. The concerns are, but are not limited to acquisition, retention and training. We also need to look at the existing MCPS Employee Assistance Program (EAP). While it provides mental health support such as virtual counseling, we need to re-evaluate and evaluate whether employees are aware of the service and whether existing EAP services are effectively addressing the challenges employees are facing today. We need EAP programs that are staff-focused or we risk not fulfilling their stated purpose.

Third, as a school system, we conduct a thorough pre-screening process when hiring teachers. Teachers go through several interviews during which their CVs are thoroughly checked. However, it is equally important to thoroughly understand why employees leave the school system. MCPS’ recent short Google exit survey does little to capture employee experiences with the system and leaves no room for collecting suggestions and comments to find better ways to retain talent. In reality, staff may be intimidated into voicing their true concerns when the school system conducts the exit survey. We must use an external organization to collect honest and transparent information, which can help timely inform MCPS about improvement areas to meet the needs of employees.

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