MADISON, N.H. — With the kind of care a mom takes raising her own children, Heather Woodard approaches lunchtime at Madison Elementary School in Madison, New Hampshire, knowing her students can’t learn if they’re hungry.
“You have to feed them. If you don’t have one piece of the puzzle, you don’t have school,” Woodard said as she worked to serve out the day’s lunch, macaroni and cheese made from scratch.
Heather Woodard isn’t a full-time employee of the cafeteria. She loves the rush but it isn’t her main job.
Madison Elementary is where she is most well-known as Principal Woodard.
“It’s who I am. I wouldn’t ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do,” Woodard explained as she scooped out a helping of apples to a hungry student.
There are severe shortages of staff in schools across the country. Teachers and staff have to be flexible in filling the positions that they are required. Principal Woodard was the only one who could help a sick cafeteria worker on Wednesday morning.
Because she knows the importance of providing food for her students,
“Everyone just does what they need to do,” she added.
Madison Elementary is part SAU 13 in northern rural New Hampshire. Superintendent Michael Whaland oversees the district and is facing staffing shortages like he’s never seen.
“It’s just putting more weight on the collective shoulders of our educators. I think it’s just a really tough time to get into education right now,” Whaland said as he looked over a stack of job vacancies sitting on his desk.
Rural communities such as this are quieter than usual, making it even more difficult. There are fewer people living here than in major cities, which means that the district’s tax revenues are lower. This results in school budgets being stretched to their limits.
The district average starting salary for teachers is approximately $40,000, which exceeds most state averages.
Superintendent Whaland says that teacher retention is not just about the pay. It’s about finding someone that truly loves rural America.
“Do you love that lifestyle? Because it’s a life and work balance and if you can find someone like that, they’re going to stay. If not, our turnover rate becomes incredibly high,” he noted.
Whaland is concerned about the possibility of a few teaching positions being vacant now that school year has begun. Even one school is operating without a chief.
“When those positions aren’t filled, it’s tough. We’re doing the same amount of work with less staff, ultimately something’s gotta give,” he noted.
The educational staffing crisis has reached historic heights due to an unprecedented combination of variables. Fear of contracting COVID-19, many teachers have retired from teaching in the past two years. Low pay has historically also slowed down the number of teachers currently in school who are looking to enter the profession.
Kim Anderson with the National Education Association and is worried this trend will only continue if federal action isn’t taken quickly.
“We’ve got to invest in the adults that care for students on a daily basis,” she said.
In the next 2026-2016 period, 270,000 public school educators will leave the profession. COVID-19 makes it more likely that teachers will retire earlier, according to one third of them.
The American Families Plan is being proposed by the Biden administration to address this issue. This legislation would allocate $9Billion to address the problem of teacher shortage. The money would go towards diversifying the nation’s teacher workforce and to equip them with new skills.
“These educators are going above and beyond the call of duty and if we don’t take care of them we’ll see this pipeline of educators dry up,” Anderson added.
Heather Woodard, Madison Elementary School principal, doesn’t need to hear it. Two positions are needed at the rural school with 130 students. The school opened a month ago, and staff are already exhausted.
“Right now, it feels more stressed. People didn’t have time to decompress this summer like we usually would,” Heather Woodard said as she worked to take off her apron and head back to her office.
Madison Elementary is working hard to provide the best education for their students, just like all schools.