Recruitment & Retention

‘How Bad Could It Get?’ State and District Leaders Work to Combat Teacher Shortages

By Madeline Will — March 04, 2022 7 min read
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The Hallsville, Mo., school district has been trying to hire a speech language pathologist and a specialist to teach English-language learners for months now, but administrators haven’t received a single qualified application.

It’s part of a troubling trend for a school district that’s just 10 miles away from the state’s flagship university: Hallsville can’t seem to hire enough teachers. Even open positions for elementary teachers in the district are receiving fewer applications these days, despite the fact that elementary education is typically the most popular major for aspiring teachers.

“We have a strong reputation as a district as a great place for teachers to work and students to learn, and yet we’ve still seen an increased challenge in filling the vacancies,” said Superintendent John Downs. “It’s concerning to see the number of applications declining. … How bad could it get down the road?”

Teacher shortages—particularly in certain subject areas, like special education or high school math—have been a challenge for years. But school district leaders say the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and many districts started the school year with a higher-than-normal number of teacher vacancies. A national EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in the fall, found that nearly half of district leaders and principals said they had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers this school year.

At the same time, teachers already in the classroom are saying in survey after survey that they want to quit, although it remains to be seen whether most actually will. Even so, experts say that district leaders should be conscious of the rising levels of teacher burnout.

Also, enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has been declining steadily over the past decade, raising some concern about the strength of the pipeline into the profession. While a recent survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education found that most teacher-preparation programs said the pandemic has had either no or minimal impact on enrollment, a fifth of institutions did see a decline in new undergraduate enrollment of 11 percent or more.

“If we aren’t seeing the big, huge shortage increase right now, I think we will definitely be seeing it over the next couple years—if there [are] not the right interventions,” said Megan Boren, a program manager at the Southern Regional Education Board who leads the organization’s work on educator human capital strategies.

Increasing teacher compensation is one such intervention, she said, and some state legislatures are working to pass teacher pay raises. (For example, the Mississippi legislature is negotiating two different plans that would provide teachers at least a $4,000 annual raise.) But pay can’t be the only consideration for district leaders and policymakers, Boren said. Supportive working conditions are critical, too.

The Hallsville district, for instance, will pivot to a four-day school week in the fall, a decision that was primarily made with the goal of recruiting and retaining more teachers. Downs said teachers can use the noninstructional day to meet with their professional learning community, plan, collaborate, and take care of their own needs: “We’re looking to maximize the flexibility of those days,” he said.

The rural, 1,400-student district has to find creative ways to hire and keep its teachers because it’s a challenge to compete with more-affluent neighboring districts on salaries and benefits, Downs said. The district has also received grant funds to support tuition reimbursement for teachers and pay them stipends for taking on extra duties. And administrators are coordinating with local colleges and universities and neighboring districts to provide a pathway toward certification for paraprofessionals.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about trying to provide a benefit for students,” Downs said. “The research is very clear: Quality teachers are the No. 1 [in-school] indicator of student success.”

States are using federal relief money to build pipelines

Armed with an influx of federal COVID-19 relief money, state policymakers are working to address the school staffing crisis by strengthening the teacher pipelines and removing barriers to entry.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education, for instance, has designated $12.7 million of its federal money to pay a stipend to 1,300 student-teachers each year for the next three years. Student-teachers will receive $3,250, half of which will be paid up front and the remainder after they complete student teaching and sign a contract to teach in an Oklahoma public school.

State officials say that many prospective teachers do not complete their teacher-preparation programs because of the time commitment of student teaching—time that could have been spent working another paid job.

New Mexico’s education department earmarked $37 million of its federal relief money to hire 500 educational assistants and support them as they study to become a teacher, counselor, or school nurse. Interested school districts will receive grants that cover an educational assistant’s full salary plus benefits, a $4,000 stipend to support each fellow’s postsecondary education, and money to cover all licensure fees.

And Tennessee recently became the first state to be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a permanent “grow your own” model that will allow people to become a teacher for free. The first registered apprenticeship program is a partnership between the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system and Austin Peay State University that allows school employees to get on-the-job experience—and a paycheck—while training to become a teacher. Tuition, fees, books, and required exams are all covered.

Tennessee officials say the approach will help address shortages while also investing in high-quality candidates who may have otherwise faced barriers into the profession.

“This isn’t just, ‘Anybody should become a teacher just to get more bodies in classrooms,’” said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s education commissioner. “If we can get great people in the classroom, we can get them in debt-free, [and] we can make sure that a first-year teacher has three years of experience, … we’re thrilled about what this means.”

Tennessee is using $20 million of its federal relief funding to support 65 “grow your own” programs across the state, including the one in Clarksville-Montgomery. Now, the state plans to register the 64 other programs with the U.S. Department of Labor, as long as they meet the minimum requirements, so they have a permanent source of funding.

Many of the state’s programs are either targeted toward school employees like paraprofessionals or creating a pathway for high school students who are interested in teaching. So far, Schwinn said, the programs are preparing 650 future educators—enough to fill about two-thirds of the state’s unfilled classroom vacancies.

Districts work to retain teachers

Meanwhile, district leaders are taking steps to keep the teachers they already have.

A national EdWeek Research Center, conducted in late January and early February, found that 43 percent of district leaders say they’ve given teachers a one-time pay bonus since the start of the pandemic. District leaders have told Education Week that the bonuses, which can fall between $1,000 and $5,000, are meant to show gratitude for hard work during a challenging school year and to help entice teachers to stick around.

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Image of a watering can with a money symbol and a plant.
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Many districts are also putting more of an emphasis on employee wellness, especially at a time when so many teachers say they’re burned out and experience a great deal of job-related stress.

“We don’t just want to get staff through the semester, we want to make sure we’re taking the opportunity to really listen and hear,” said Alex Moseman, the director of talent acquisition for the Indianapolis school district. “What are the challenges? What are additional supports [teachers need from school leaders]? What are the ways we can rethink the way the teaching role looks that makes the job more sustainable?”

Fostering a supportive work environment that celebrates success is an important component of retaining teachers, Moseman said. He’s also focused on recruiting teachers for the next school year—a competitive process, especially given declining enrollment trends in the state’s teacher-preparation programs.

“COVID is a new variable in the equation, but the problem we’re trying to solve for is not new,” he said.

Among other initiatives, the Indianapolis district has partnered with a local charter network to launch a free, one-year apprenticeship program for current district support staff, recent college graduates who didn’t earn an education degree, and career-changers. Aspiring teachers receive a salary and are partnered with a mentor teacher as they work in classrooms and prepare for the state licensing exam.

Moseman said the district’s approach to talent recruitment is all about removing barriers and making it as easy as possible to bring high-quality people into classrooms. “It’s an incredibly competitive landscape, and we want to make sure we’re not missing out on folks,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘How Bad Could It Get?’ State and District Leaders Work to Combat Teacher Shortages

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