Harns Marsh Middle School leads by example to fill teacher shortage gaps 

Reporter: Kellie Miller
Published: Updated:

Burnout: you hear this word all the time on the news and maybe even in your daily conversations. It’s a problem for a lot of workers, especially teachers. Over the past few years, thousands of teachers in Southwest Florida have said goodbye to the education world.

‘WINK Investigates’ reporter Kellie Miller collected data from Charlotte, Lee, and Collier County Schools from March 2020 through Jan. 2023. About 1,900 teachers left Lee County Public Schools during that time. In Collier County, about 1,111 teachers left during that time frame, and in Charlotte County, approximately 475 teachers left.

“Often, education is a pretty thankless position where they just constantly hear negatives. We try to give them their positives,” principal Alex Dworzanski said.

Dworzanski is the principal of Harns Marsh Middle School in Lee County. He believes the teacher shortage is a pervasive, national issue that’s been coming on for a while. But, Dworzanski is not solely relying on administrators to make changes. He’s taking action where he can.

“I put my teachers and staff first,” he said. “And I know that’s a very different type of response that you would probably hear from a principal because you always hear the principal say, ‘I put students first.’ I would love to, but I don’t know all 1,550 students. I can never know them personally, but I can know my staff personally because I have 150 of those.”

Dworzanski’s philosophy has paid off in more ways than one. Teachers Samantha Hower and Allie Kerner said he’s created simple yet impactful programs for his staff.

“Our school has started our in-house food pantry, the Hungry Bowl,” Kerner said. “And so, with the help and the relationship Mr. D. has with Harry Chapin, we are able to send staff home with the needs they have to get through.” So, every Friday that opens up, and teachers are able to come by, get fresh produce, get canned goods, get meat, get bread, which really does help relieve some of that stress that we don’t have a ton of control over.”

“It’s now integrated into the school culture,” Hower said. “I mean, they just expect it, they value it, there is no stigma with it. So, we’ve done a really good job of just being that ‘One team, one family’ when it comes to meeting needs outside of the school as well.”

Kerner and Hower are two of many educators in Lee County focused on teacher retention. In addition to teaching students, they serve as Peer Collaborative Teachers (PCTs). In this role, they provide coaching, mentorship, and professional development to staff members.

Teacher Steven Mcginley also serves as a PCT, a role he takes great pride in.

“Working as a PCT is almost like you get the best of both worlds,” he said. “I teach for half of the day, and then I get to work with teachers for the other half of the day. So we have the opportunity to build them up, build up their confidence, model and observe lessons and really help them grow as an educator.”

At Harns Marsh Middle School, administrators, coaches, department heads, and PCTs meet every Friday to solve issues related to academics, safety, and security and increasing teacher morale. McGinley believes building relationships is critical to their school’s success and hopes other principals follow suit.

“I think that what we really need to do to really help retain teachers is to bring back that social interaction both between the teacher and the student, but also the student and the student,” McGinley said. “Because some of the best days I have are watching my students work together and truly learning and having fun while they do that.”

Putting teachers first, and giving them opportunities to grow, are just two initiatives Mr. D has focused on as principal. He grew up in Lehigh Acres in a single-parent household and never wants his teachers to struggle.

“I look at what their needs are,” Dworzanski said. “I value them as people, and I try to provide for their basic needs through our food pantry program and give them food once a week to offset some of the issues affecting food insecurity and the issues right now with the cost of living.”

According to Dworzanski, Harns Marsh Middle School onboards some of the academically lowest students in the district. The school also has the second-highest ESOL population in the district.

“It doesn’t matter where you start. We just have to work a little bit harder in order to prepare our kids for high school,” he said. “But they will be prepared for high school. That has been demonstrated by our school scores and academic scores, and we have some of the highest learning gains in the district overall.”

Dworzanski said he’s working to fill a total of 14 positions at his school, including six teachers and eight support staff members.

“If you are a new teacher, we want you; we love you,” he said. “But I also want to challenge principals and administrators out there to do what we have been doing and put teachers first.”

Currently, there are about 200 open teacher positions in Lee County, 69 in Collier County, and about 30 in Charlotte County.

READ MORE: A new school, a new leader, a new vision: Lee County principal builds school from scratch amid teacher shortages

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