Educators today are faced with a variety of difficulties, including students falling behind academically, larger class sizes, and cancelations due to a lack of staff. School administrators are also encountering numerous obstacles in their roles.
This month, we spoke with Cheryl Elliot, the principal of Summit Academy Schools in Columbus, Ohio, about the challenges she faces while running her schools. Summit Academy consists of three schools that are currently at maximum enrollment. Elliot oversees the staff who teach students from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The schools serve 100 students, most of whom have learning difficulties and are on individualized learning programs (IEPs) as defined by the state. Elliot explained that hiring staff for her schools is difficult due to the abundance of community schools in Ohio competing for qualified candidates, as well as larger public-school districts that can offer higher salaries.
The students at Summit Academy typically come from the inner city, where they often lack support at home. Elliot noted that students who have a supportive home environment are eager to learn, while those who do not often view school as a place to fulfill their unmet needs, with learning taking a backseat. This means that teachers at her schools must be prepared to handle more behavioral challenges in the classroom. However, Elliot mentioned that most of her staff are young, and it is her responsibility to mentor and guide them in dealing with students who are not emotionally ready to learn, as well as parents who may not have the time or skills to provide a nurturing environment outside of school.
Elliot also shared that hiring for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year was particularly challenging, as many staff members left for larger public schools. She stated that they only received one resume late in August, causing them to delay the start date of the school year and to increase job wages. To address this issue, they posted ads on job websites and had staff members visit various locations in the city, such as coffee shops and libraries, to recruit teachers. When this approach did not yield many results, they sought assistance from hiring companies.
SmartStart Education collaborated with Elliot’s schools by first meeting with the human resources department and then with Elliot herself, allowing the talent acquisition specialists to understand their specific needs. The team at SmartStart is composed of former educators, so they have firsthand experience and know what qualities to look for when finding suitable candidates. Elliot remarked that the teachers recruited by SmartStart tend to be more mature and accountable, bringing a unique energy to the classroom, particularly at the high school level. She also mentioned that during interviews, the SmartStart team presents the candidates and is present during the process, actively listening to her needs and excelling in finding experienced candidates.
Elliot has been working in education for over 30 years but took a break to work as a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society for 15 years. She eventually left to raise her twin sons while completing her master’s degree. Elliot joined Summit Academy Schools in 2008, working there while finishing her master’s degree. She has been with the schools ever since. When asked about the changes she has observed in the education system since the pandemic, Elliot explained that she has noticed a negative shift in parents’ attitudes, with less support and more anger. She also stated that students were struggling academically due to a lack of skills needed to succeed in virtual learning.
The shortage of teachers has also been a significant challenge for Elliot. She mentioned that she could accommodate 40 more students if she had enough staff and space, and currently has a waiting list for middle and high school levels. Despite these challenges, Elliot has a high opinion of her administrative team, describing them as experienced, supportive, and always willing to step in when needed.
Just before the winter break, Elliot was faced with a difficult situation of three staff vacancies that occurred during the holiday break. She admitted that it was frustrating, but her team is excellent at working together to determine the best way to fill the gaps while searching for replacements. Sometimes, Elliot or an administrative member must teach a class or provide additional classroom support. She mentioned that they strategize to find the least disruptive solution for students, staff, and the administrative team.
Throughout it all, Elliot remains grounded and provides her teachers with the support they deserve. She acknowledges that teaching is a challenging job, and it can be difficult to retain teachers due to the daily struggles they face. To prevent burnout, Elliot tries to incorporate fun into the day. She ended the conversation by highlighting the positive aspects of their job, stating that they are providing something for their students that they may not receive elsewhere, such as compassion, kindness, second chances, and forgiveness.