What’s Going on with Foreign Language Education?

Teacher shortages across the country are hitting world language departments


Anna Kelly, Opinion Editor

The rise of the global pandemic underscored a multitude of issues in education—most notably, a widespread shortage of public school teachers across the country. In Scituate, recent resignations and retirements have impacted the SHS world language department, in particular. This year, retired French teacher George Haddad agreed to return to SHS on a part-time basis after the resignation of a full-time French teacher over the summer. 

“As students get older and content becomes more specialized,” Principal Dr. Lisa Maguire explained, “the pool of teachers tends to become smaller, as fewer people are going into those more specialized areas.” 

This issue is not unique to Scituate, nor even to Massachusetts: “There’s a national teacher shortage that is real coming out of the pandemic,” said Superintendent William Burkhead. “It has certainly hit us to some degree.”

Unfortunately, this makes teacher shortages even harder to solve, because there are so many districts affected. School administrators nationwide find themselves scratching their heads, wondering, “What are the issues, and how can we solve them?” 

SPS World Language Department Chair Kathryn Ciulla replied to this question by saying, “I think teaching has become a less attractive field. Some of my friends now don’t leave their homes for work. They have young kids, so that works tremendously well for them. It’s convenient. Teachers don’t have that luxury. They don’t even have that option.”

Public schools can’t compete with the rise of virtual jobs—teaching requires 5 days a week and 8+ hours a day, in-person—nor can schools compete with attractive salaries, time-off, and benefits. It’s a tricky balance, as qualified candidates weigh their options. To be a teacher is extremely fulfilling, but people who have the skills necessary to teach a world language curriculum also possess the skills needed to be successful in many other professions. 

“If we post a job for a French teaching position at high school, we may get three or four applicants,” said Burkhead. “We post an elementary third-grade position, we might get 33 applicants. And that’s pretty consistent.”

There are simply fewer qualified applicants as content becomes more specialized, in subjects such as world language, science, and math. In order to maintain its standards of excellence, Scituate administrators hire teachers with the understanding that they’re not settling. 

“If we have two applicants and they’re both not meeting our expectations,” says Burkhead, “then we repost the position. We’re looking for candidates that will meet our expectations so we can still hire good people.”

This is the largest issue—simply finding qualified applicants among a sea of districts doing the same. Word of mouth, says Burkhead, is the best method of advertising. Teachers talk to other teachers, and they ask each other, “How are you treated?” “What’s the work environment like?” “Should I apply there?”

To draw in more applicants, Scituate is actively working to create a supportive school environment—both for new and experienced teachers. This year’s “You are Important” slogan is designed to create a place where staff and students are equally valued. “​​It means that we have something for everyone here,” said Maguire.

 Through pep rallies, spirit weeks, SAIL awards, and the Principal’s Advisory Council, the administration is trying to improve school culture more and more each year. It’s about making SHS a place where students feel safe and happy, because when students are doing well, the faculty workplace is doing well, too. To put it simply, it’s important to recognize teachers for their hard work. Teaching is a draining job, where a lot of time and love is put into creating a positive academic experience. 

“Teaching is a heavy profession,” Ciulla commented. “This is not a job where you walk out the door, head home, and forget about your students. You care deeply about them and their wellbeing.”

Creating a culture that recognizes and appreciates teachers is supremely important in attracting applicants. Yet beyond culture, the administration is improving teacher contracts, essentially reflecting Scituate’s values in salary, benefits, and time off. Scituate’s prerogative is to “pay teachers what they’re worth,” explained Burkhead. “But beyond that, what other things separate us from other districts?”

Recently, parental leave has been updated. By making it easier for teachers to take time off, Scituate has put its familial values into writing. “People want to work under circumstances that are beneficial to them in their whole life,” explained Burkhead. “Not just in their workplace.”

These behind-the-scenes improvements are ways that Scituate is working to retain and find good people—candidates who connect to the district’s commitment to excellence. 

With respect to the world language department, Scituate High School stands out, because language isn’t seen as a second-rate subject. Unlike many other schools, which only offer Spanish and French, Scituate has added Mandarin and offers world language opportunities to all students in grades 6 through 12. The new Pathways program—a program that allows students to graduate with a distinction in world language—is another unique addition. “It’s one of those intangibles that can make teachers feel really good about being here,” said Maguire. 

Such opportunities cement Scituate’s devotion to world language study. It’s a department that the administration is adding to consistently, and as such, world language applicants don’t have to worry about being on the chopping block. In other districts, Principal Maguire has seen a reduction in world language firsthand. “If a budget got really tight,” she said, “I’ve seen world languages get eliminated at the middle school level and only taught at the high school.” “We’re very lucky that we have a district that is supportive of teaching world language,” Maguire added.

As Scituate High School, and many other schools, recover from the pandemic’s toll, creative solutions to teacher shortages are high on the agenda. “[Teaching isn’t] for the money,” says Burkhead. “It’s for changing the world.” That’s something the administration is working to recognize more deeply, so staff feels the importance of their work, in ways beyond the personal. When students see their teachers as real people who genuinely care about their students, it’s easier to maintain a more positive learning environment.

A national shortage of world language teachers may be a reflection of widespread concerns regarding competitive salaries, work recognition, and employment benefits, but the SPS administration is working to address these issues. “It’s something we have to fix,” says Burkhead. “We don’t have a choice.”