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.
While she loves the cafeteria rush, this is not Heather Woodard's full-time job.
She is better known around Madison Elementary 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.
Schools across the country are facing severe staffing shortages. Teachers and staff are pinch-hitting in whatever positions they need to. When a cafeteria worker called out sick on a recent Wednesday morning, the only option was for Principal Woodard to step in.
After all, she knows her students have to be fed.
“Everyone just does what they need to do,” she added.
Madison Elementary is part of 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.
The quiet of rural communities like this one is only making matters worse. Fewer residents live here compared to most major urban areas, which generates lower tax revenues for the district meaning school budgets are stretched thin.
The average starting salary for a teacher in this district is about $40,000, which is even higher than most state averages.
For Superintendent Whaland, teacher retention though isn't just about pay. It's about finding someone who truly loves living in 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.
With the school year well underway, Whaland is looking at a number of teaching positions going unfilled. He even has one school operating without a principal.
“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.
A perfect storm of variables has left educational staffing shortages at historic highs. Many teachers retired early in the last two years for fear of catching COVID-19. Historically, low pay is also drying up the pipeline of educators currently in school looking to get into 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.
Between 2016 and 2026, more than 270,000 public school teachers are projected to leave the profession. One in three teachers says COVID-19 has made them more likely to retire early.
To address the issue, the Biden administration is proposing the American Families Plan. The legislation would allocate $9 billion to address the teacher shortage. That money would help to train, equip and diversify the nation's teachers.
“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.
No need to tell that to Heather Woodard, the principal at Madison Elementary School. The rural school of 130 students is short two positions. School only started a month ago and the staff there is already tired.
“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.
But like schools across the country, Madison Elementary is doing whatever they can to make sure their students are being served up the best education possible.