Q&A: Navigating the Teacher Job Market

By Josh Cohen — October 08, 2008 5 min read
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Math, science, and special education are facing huge teacher shortages while, at the same time, other fields are turning teachers away. This imbalance of staffing raises questions and opportunities for prospective teachers and those looking for a change. Kent McAnally, Director of Career services at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., helps us understand this situation by answering our questions about the shortages and surpluses and giving his advice on how prospective teachers might begin to navigate this contrasting market.

Math, science, and special education seem to be suffering the worst teacher shortages in the profession. Considering the demand, why aren’t we seeing more teachers going into those fields?

Part of the explanation for mathematics and the sciences has been that students who are high achievers in math and science earn considerably more in salary in fields such as engineering, accounting, actuarial science, and health care than in teaching. This continues to be the case. We are now seeing some suggestions that teachers in high-demand fields be paid more. The struggle is that for years, in most cases, teachers’ salaries have been negotiated as a unit. Teachers are placed on a salary schedule based on amount of education and years of experience regardless of subject area or level. To the colleague in social studies or language arts, additional pay for science and math educators is contrary to what they have negotiated for years: “Their students are our students, too; we work the same number of hours; why should they get paid more than we do?”

Special education is different. Schools have struggled with mandates and expectations that they provide services to all students, regardless of special needs. This has greatly increased the need for more special educators. At the same time, the challenges of dealing with special needs students are great, and usually there is no more salary for a special educator than for a regular classroom teacher. Add in the required paper work and conferences with parents and other providers, and the job is not very appealing to most young professionals or prospective teachers. It is seen as being even more difficult than being a regular education teacher.

Finally, teaching overall is rightfully being recognized as a difficult career with limited extrinsic rewards. The demands of dealing with students and parents have grown. There are more and more expectations of “accountability,” some of which are based simply on testing. Young persons evaluating potential careers witness their own teachers dealing with behavior problems, unmotivated students, and irate parents and have negative perceptions of teaching. Teachers put in hours and hours of time creating lessons and grading assignments and tests, leading to the perception that teachers struggle with work-life balance. In short, teaching is too hard for the limited rewards.

Are you seeing other fields/subject areas in which teachers are in high demand?

Bilingual teachers continue to be in great demand, and we have seen considerable demand in Spanish and music in our part of the country. Business educators and family and consumer science are also areas that have become very difficult to fill, as there are few new candidates and retirements have been increasing in those fields.

Are the shortages you’re seeing generally across the board or in certain grade levels more than others?

Most of the shortages are at the middle and secondary levels. The exception may be in the bilingual area, where the need is about equal. There is still an attraction to the early childhood and elementary levels for the person who “loves children.” Certainly all teachers need to love children in order to be effective, but there is much more to the job than that. There is the perception that small children are more “cuddly” or more “lovable” than the middle-schoolers or high-schoolers.

What steps are education schools like your own taking to try and increase the teacher supply in shortage fields?

As a career services professional, when I see education students or prospective educators, we talk about the relative supply and demand in the education fields. The American Association for Employment in Education produces some excellent research in this area, and I share that information with students. Some universities are limiting enrollment in over-supplied areas such as elementary education and physical education. Unfortunately, limiting enrollment in over-supplied areas does nothing to address the needs in other areas. I also encourage the elementary education majors to consider adding a middle-level subject-area endorsement or to consider teaching in intermediate or upper-elementary grades rather than just the kindergarten and primary levels, where the over-supply is greatest.

Numbers in teacher education programs on our campus have increased slightly in the last couple of years. Because I am not in the education department at my university (Career Services is in the student affairs portion of the university), my staff and I usually do not see the education students until they are farther down the line. I hope that instructors are bringing in educators early in students’ programs to talk about supply and demand and where schools’ need are — and are not.

Are there some fields that currently have an over-supply of teachers? In other words, in what subject areas is the teacher job market the tightest?

Physical education, elementary education (especially early childhood, kindergarten, and primary grades), and social studies continue to be oversupplied fields.

What advice do you have for education majors and job-hunting teachers who are in saturated or well-supplied fields?

I wrote a short piece on this topic for the Career Corner on the website recently. Here are some things I advised:

• Be willing to go “where the job is.” Geographic flexibility will help some. Oversupply is lower in rural and urban areas than in suburbs and mid-sized towns. The wider your geographical net, the wider the pool of potential jobs.

• Have a perfect application. There is no room for error in an oversupplied field. Proofread application materials obsessively and have others do the same for you. You are selling a product – yourself. Be the best candidate. Look at what successful candidates are doing and do the same things. Get volunteer experience working with youth and children. Tutor. Look for ways to increase your successful experience with children and youth. Get to know successful educators and principals.

• Get a second or third endorsement. The more subjects you can teach, the wider the pool of potential jobs.

• Practice interviewing. When the field is oversupplied, only the best will be hired. You cannot always know where you stack up with other candidates, so it is imperative to be as good as you can be. Even with a perfect résumé with superb experience, you must be able to sell yourself articulately to the prospective employer. Take opportunities to practice interviewing with meaningful and honest critical feedback in order to be an effective salesperson for your own experience and skills.


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