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Teachers Wanted: Binghamton District Struggles To Fill Jobs

Larry Kassan leads new teachers on a bus tour of the Binghamton City School District.

The Binghamton City School District has a teacher shortage this year. Out of 60 open positions, three were still unfilled within weeks of the first day. This comes amid a national need for more teachers, and it has educators in New York feeling a bit of whiplash.

A couple weeks before school started, Larry Kassan led Binghamton’s new teachers on a tour of the city. The outing is part of the district’s orientation program, and this year the buses were packed. One of the hires, Jen Smith, will teach reading at West Middle School. She signed her contract just a week before orientation.

“I did not apply for this position,” she says. “I actually applied to be a substitute teacher.” Smith says the district called her to see if she wanted to teach full-time instead. She did. “It was a surprise, and it all happened really fast, in like a week,” she says. “From the time they called me to ‘you’re hired’, it was a week.”

Smith is not alone. The district had trouble finding enough applicants for all its open positions this year. Mary Surdey managed the job searches, and on the day of the teacher orientation, she said they were still cutting it close.

“I hired someone this morning as a matter of fact,” Surdey said, “So out of 60 teacher vacancies I think I have 57 filled.”

Surdey says she reached out to local colleges to tap new grads, and she went to five job fairs around the state. That’s not her usual summer. “This is a very different environment this year,” she says.

Only a few years ago, schools around New York and the country were cutting jobs, not adding them. The recession squeezed budgets, and New York lost thousands of teaching jobs.

This year, schools finally have more money in their pockets. They’ve had several years in a row of increased state aid. Many districts can rehire some of the positions they lost, and many, like Binghamton, are finding a shortage of candidates. Andrea LaChance, dean of the SUNY Cortland School of Education, says that’s because fewer people are training to become teachers. Enrollment in her program is down 30 percent compared to five years ago. She says prospective teachers got turned off during the recession.

“It was less of a sure thing than it had been in the past,” she says, “So students and parents looking into what majors are going to be marketable saw teaching as less appealing.”

In New York, there’s been something else dissuading potential teachers.

“Probably the nail in the coffin, to a certain extent, has just been all the political … drama, for lack of a better word, around teaching,” LaChance says.

LaChance goes through the state education policies that have generated controversy: a rocky transition to new Common Core standards five years ago, a new teacher evaluation system earlier this year that heightens emphasis on student test scores and the spring anti-testing “opt-out” movement. She says it all gets back to would-be teachers, especially when they go into schools for their student teaching.

“Our poor students sometimes hear from teachers they’re hosting with, a word of caution: ‘This has gotten really hard,’” she says.

Of course, all the new teachers aboard the Binghamton buses are taking it on. Middle school social studies teacher Taylor Weigand says the turmoil doesn’t get him down.

“I think it’s what you make it,” he says. “I think that almost every job you have you have to work within certain confines.” Weigand starts his sixth year of teaching this fall. “I would say I’m more excited now that I have some experience behind me,” he says. “I love the job. I can’t wait for the fall to begin.”

Now that it has almost all its job openings filled, neither can his new district.