Across Alabama, schools are facing a teacher shortage. The state's challenge of finding new teachers has been ongoing, and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation as people changed careers.
Recently, in an effort to combat the statewide teacher shortage, the Alabama State Board of Education approved a change to teaching standards. Now, if a potential teacher scores lower on the Praxis exam, they could still earn a teaching certificate if their GPA is higher.
"It's not lowering the standard; it's just making it more flexible," said Tiffany Wilson, Ph.D., HR director, Baldwin County Board of Education. "If the standard isn't there in one area, then it has to be there in another area."
But is Baldwin County facing a teacher shortage similar to the rest of the state?
Despite the teacher shortage being faced in other parts of Alabama, many local school officials said Baldwin is doing good beginning the 2022-23 school year.
"Coming in the door we were pretty much fully staffed," said Joe Blevins, HR director, Orange Beach City Schools (OBCS). "We had to add a couple positions because of student population, but we were able to find those very quickly."
School district officials said there were multiple reasons why they feel Baldwin County is not facing a critical teacher shortage like a large portion of the state.
Here are some key factors district officials believe contribute to this local trend.
Incentives for teachers
Higher pay, benefits and opportunities for growth and career advancements were cited by many local district officials as draws for teachers.
"We're one of the top paying systems in the state," Wilson said of Baldwin County Public Schools (BCPS). "We pay over the state matrix for teachers, and we have our local campaign, Baldwin Bred. We're trying to encourage people within our communities who are interested in becoming educators."
On the island, Blevins said ensuring OBCS teachers entered with higher pay and benefits appealed to those coming into the area.
Next door, Gulf Shores City Schools (GSCS) Superintendent Matt Akin, Ph.D., said supporting their teachers in every aspect of their career was a top priority.
"We value our teachers and we are committed to supporting them in many different ways," he said. "Across all positions, we are one of the highest paying school systems in Alabama. Additionally, we are the only school system in Alabama to provide four weeks of paid parental leave to take care of a newborn child, recently adopted child, or recently placed foster child. We also provide bereavement leave, separate from sick leave, for our employees. Those benefits may seem small, but we believe they are extremely important to our employees."
Akin said providing the best professional growth opportunities for teachers is another incentive in the district. Any Gulf Shores teacher wanting to go through the National Board Certification for teachers can do so – with no cost to them. The Dolphin Foundation for Education and Arts, with support of local community members, covers all the expenses the Gulf Shores teacher would otherwise have to pay for themselves.
The cost of participation is approximately $3,000 per teacher, Akin said. Teachers who receive National Board Certification receive a $5,000 per year supplement from the state of Alabama.
Strong recruitment efforts
Wilson said one thing that kept teacher interest up for BCPS was a large amount of promotion to fill vacancies during the spring. Before last school year let out, efforts were already being made to fill retiree positions that would soon become vacant.
"We started off the school year with a few vacancies, but we are so much better off than we were last year," she said.
Another large effort for BCPS was pushing recruitment messages via social media, during community meetings and in meetings with civic clubs and churches.
Baldwin County also boasts the Future Teacher Scholarships program, which went from raising $2,000 in its first year to over $50,000 in its second year. These funds were given to graduating students going to college for teaching degrees and to employees looking to become teachers.
Wilson said the scholarships are to encourage and support those who want to go into the teaching field. And, she hopes, will encourage them to come back home to Baldwin County and teach within their communities.
In GSCS, the system had multiple teacher openings for the 2022-23 school year due to an increase in student enrollment. The team began hiring in early spring, ahead of the summer break, and received numerous applicants, Akin said.
"Gulf Shores City Schools is a great school system," he said. "One of our Core Values is 'to recruit and embolden the best and the brightest faculty and staff and reward innovation and collaboration.' We believe in empowering our teachers and giving them the resources and flexibility to personalize learning for our students. We are also committed to building innovative facilities, like our new STEAM addition, that support instruction and learning."
Location, location, location
One thing everyone agreed on – Baldwin County offers a great place for families.
"There's a lot of good things here. It's at the beach, what else can you say, that's a draw within itself," Blevins said with a laugh.
Blevins said he's excited to go out and recruit for Orange Beach, citing the newness of the district as an instant appeal for potential employees. But, he said, the reason people stay is far deeper.
"The first thing I did when I came on was the ribbon cutting (for OBCS), and I'll never forget that day because of the number of people who came out on a very rainy morning," he recalled. "Here is a community that's passionate about their district. The participation from everyone, from the school board, the city council, parents, the whole community. Just the passion and the word of mouth about what we're doing, I think that has drawn people."