Long-term substitutes at Clay-Battelle fill positions left by teacher shortage
By Ciara Litchfield
Photos are by Ciara Litchfield
Clay-Battelle Middle and High School in Blacksville, West Virginia is one of three secondary schools in Monongalia County.
At the start of the 2021/2022 school year, Clay-Battelle Middle and Senior High School in Blacksville, West Virginia was listing three vacant teaching positions. One, a biology position, and two special education positions.
The biology position was filled when a special education teacher earned certification to teach biology, and took the job. That left three special education positions open.
In a bind, with little faith that he could fill the positions before the start of the school year, David Cottrell, the school’s principal, encouraged athletic trainer, Kimberly Coen, to bid on the open, long-term substitute position for a special education role. He asked Clay-Battelle retiree, Eric Ammons, to return for the year and do the same.
The classroom that was designated for the unfilled teaching position was absorbed by the existing teachers creating slightly larger class sizes overall.
Starting in 2007, with the great recession, public schools began laying off and cutting teaching positions, and by 2020, those positions had not risen to pre-recession levels. Additionally, when positions are open, there aren’t enough teachers to fill them.
Some of the most difficult positions to fill are in special education. Across the United States, 71% of all responding districts to the Frontline Education survey said they found it challenging to find special education teachers.
The pandemic compounded an already difficult issue when a number of teachers left the career voluntarily. Over half of the respondents for a Rand Corporation Survey cited the reason for quitting public school teaching that the “pay wasn’t sufficient to merit the risks or stress.”
Cottrell said that both low numbers of teachers entering the field and high numbers of retirees contribute greatly to the teacher shortage that his school is facing. Ammons is a teacher bucking the trend and coming back from retirement to help the students.
West Virginia has fared worse than neighboring states Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia. The state experienced an 8.1% decrease in teacher employment from 2019 to 2021.
This may be due to the fact that West Virginia has the worst pay rate in the region prompting many teachers to move to bordering states, such as Pennsylvania and Maryland which pay their teachers nearly $22,000 more.
The state’s legislature is hoping to retain teachers in West Virginia by passing a 5% pay raise for teachers and other school educators that goes into effect on July 1, 2022.
At another high school in the county, University High School, they utilized a long-term substitute teacher to fill the position for an autism aide and mentor, and at Morgantown High School, they posted a long-term substitute position for math after receiving no applicants from qualified teachers.
In Monongalia County, vacancies for teachers are not uncommon. A whole website is devoted to posting open positions across the county, from elementary to high school, called the “Vacancy Hotline.”
For Clay-Battelle, a small school, the openings were almost all in special education. In April 2022, Clay-Battelle had four of the total nine available positions posted on the Vacancy Hotline. When those positions remained unfilled, Cottrell found teachers who had no experience with special education.
Cotrell said he asked Ammons to return to fill the position because he had prior classroom experience and he felt it would be easier for him to navigate the position.
For Ammons, the experience was generally a good one. His first time teaching a special education classroom meant he was able to create a classroom that worked both for him and his students. In his classroom, there was a wide range of needs spanning from mental and physical impairment to legal disability. One of his students was legally blind.
In West Virginia, students that need specialized education are required to have an individualized education plan developed in collaboration with the students, their parents, and teachers in order to help the students meet their educational goals. Special education teachers must develop an education plan for each student in their classrooms.
“I created a rewards system,” Ammons said. “If they do what I ask, then I do what they ask.”
Ammons said that his classroom has a balance between hard work and fun, and that if they work hard and accomplish tasks, he will reward his students with gym time or games such as Kahoot. Ammons runs his classroom this way in order to accommodate students with a variety of disabilities including attention–deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
He said his main goal for his classroom is to give his students the fundamental skill of reading that they will use in their everyday life.
Coen said she stepped up as a permanent substitute because she was already at Clay-Battelle all of the time working as an athletic trainer.
“For me, it was pretty easy,” Coen said. “I was already working in the school with the athletes, [and] I have kids that go here, so I know a lot of the other students anyway, so it wasn’t that difficult of a transition.”
Kimberly Coen had been an athletic trainer at Clay-Battelle, and in the fall of 2022, she also became a permanent substitute for a special education classroom.
“Everybody around the state is in the same . . . situation. This isn’t just a Clay-Battelle problem.” – David Cottrell, principal Clay-Battelle Middle and Senior High School
Coen said the most difficult part for her was learning how to run a classroom and the additional preparation that came with teaching math courses since background is in exercise physiology and science.
Cottrell said he doesn’t know why finding certified teachers is so challenging right now, but he doesn’t believe his school is alone.
“Everybody around the state is in the same . . . situation,” Cottrell said. “This isn’t just a Clay-Battelle problem.”
President Joe Biden recently delegated $9 billion to address the nation’s teacher shortage under the American Families Plan in an effort to keep more teachers in the field.
When I first began researching Blacksville, I found little about the town online. Outside of sporting events at Clay-Battelle Middle and High School, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage. It was hard to find out about the town. Simple searches turned up businesses near the area but not a lot of information about people.