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Amid teacher shortage, Hillsborough schools sign recruits still in college

Twenty-one USF education students signed hiring documents this month. District leaders wish they could sign more.
University of South Florida education student Alyssa Murray, 20, of Dundee, left, makes a selfie with a group of her classmates before signing a precontract binder with the Hillsborough County school district earlier this month. The event hosted 21 middle-grade math teacher candidates who the district hopes will ease the teacher shortage.
University of South Florida education student Alyssa Murray, 20, of Dundee, left, makes a selfie with a group of her classmates before signing a precontract binder with the Hillsborough County school district earlier this month. The event hosted 21 middle-grade math teacher candidates who the district hopes will ease the teacher shortage. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 22
Updated Dec. 2

At 26, Samantha Birman is already in her second career. She served three years in the Army, including a deployment to Germany, before becoming an education major at the University of South Florida.

“I always wanted to help children,” Birman said. Now, still in college, she has a signed job offer from Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Birman and 20 other students were celebrated recently in a gathering that included balloons, family in the audience, light refreshments and a parade of officials from both the university and the school system. District human resources chief Marie Whelan shook hands with each student, smiling as she told them how excited she was to work with them.

The warm welcomes came at a critical time for a school district that, like others around the nation, is battling a crippling labor shortage. At last count, Hillsborough had about 1,000 advertised vacancies, roughly half for classroom teachers. Shortly before the ceremony began, Whelan said she wished there could be more such events.

A survey in October by the national publication Education Week found that 40 percent of district leaders and principals describe their current staff shortages as “severe” or “very severe,” despite higher wages fueled by federal relief aid.

University of South Florida education student Sierra Peters, 22, left, gets a hug from her mother, Maria Garcia, center, moments after Peters signed a pre-contract binder with the Hillsborough County school district.
University of South Florida education student Sierra Peters, 22, left, gets a hug from her mother, Maria Garcia, center, moments after Peters signed a pre-contract binder with the Hillsborough County school district. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In Hillsborough, the southeastern suburbs and rural communities are especially hard-hit. This month there were 29 openings at Gibsonton’s Eisenhower Middle School alone, 14 in jobs that serve special needs students.

“It becomes a major obstacle in meeting the needs of kids,” said teachers union President Rob Kriete.

Aspiring teachers at the signing ceremony were part of a program that addresses the need in a specific area: middle school math.

A middle school residency program — funded by the Helios Education Foundation and focused on science, technology, engineering and math — allows each student to spend two years in three middle schools, working alongside district teachers in what is, essentially, student teaching on steroids.

Program leaders say 90 percent of the residents progress directly into district jobs, where they are considered to be at the level of a third-year teacher. The others typically enter graduate school, with the assumption that they will become teachers afterward.

Employment, according to the precontract binders, is contingent on the applicant meeting all certification requirements under state law.

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Students in the program said the experience has helped them acclimate to the diversity among district schools. Nathan Suki, 20, said he spent his first year at relatively quiet schools, but this year is at Greco Middle, which is overcoming a rash of student behavior problems earlier in the year.

Suki called the experience “eye-opening” and said he is learning how to form one-on-one relationships with students from which they can benefit.

Birman, who is at Mann Middle in Brandon, said she is also finding that individual student relationships are central to the job, much more than when she was a teen. “It is much more student-based now,” she said. “I get to know the students and see how they interact with each other. I get to see different personalities — hyper, quiet, people who want to excel and people who are scared.”

Sade Amos, who has a spot at Martinez Middle, said one adjustment for her is the scant age difference between herself and the students. At 19, she is sometimes seen more as a sibling than an adult figure. But she said the students find her relatable, and that builds trust.

All three said they were moved by the signing ceremony.

“I was so nervous,” Amos said. “It feels amazing, though, knowing that when I graduate, I am going to go somewhere where I can help people.”