Finding enough teachers to fill classrooms has been a top-of-mind issue for policymakers and administrators, forcing them to get creative.
In an Education Week webinar earlier this month, three experts tackling the issue at the state and district levels discussed what’s working to fill vacancies, and what’s not. They are Ashley Osborne, the associate superintendent for teaching and learning at Midland Independent school district in west Texas; Courtney Van Cleve, the state director of educator talent acquisition and effectiveness for the Mississippi Department of Education; and Marvin Lopez, the executive director of the nonprofit California Center on Teaching Careers.
School districts have long had difficulties finding qualified teachers in subjects like special education or high school math. But in recent years, those recruitment challenges have extended to formerly popular fields, like elementary education, the experts said.
The 28,000-student Midland school district still had about 160 teacher vacancies in early May, Osborne said. In Mississippi, there were about 4,000 teacher vacancies across the state this school year—a slight reduction of about 500 from the previous year, Van Cleve said.
And in California, there were about 22,000 vacancies before the school year started, Lopez said, adding that by 2025, that number will likely be closer to 35,000 vacancies.
These vacancy numbers have prompted school districts and states to try new things to make sure every child has a qualified teacher, the experts said. Here are three key takeaways from the full discussion, which can be viewed above and here.
1. Offer bonuses—and get creative with them
Many district leaders—including those at Midland ISD—have offered sign-on or retention bonuses to keep their classrooms staffed.
“We really want to uplift the teaching profession and make it possible for folks to make a really competitive wage without having to leave the classroom,” Osborne said. “We have a number of ways that we’re doing that, but stipends is one of them.”
An EdWeek Research Center survey from last summer found that a quarter of teachers said one-time bonuses between $5,001 and $10,000 would keep them in the profession longer—compared to just 5 percent who said the same about a one-time bonus of less than $2,000.
But there are some logistical challenges associated with recruitment bonuses, Osborne said.
“Sometimes a person might think that they want to be a teacher, they get the sign-on bonus, and then they realize pretty quickly ... that this is not the position for them, and this is not the career that they wish to have—but they’ve already received their sign-on bonus,” Osborne said.
Right now, the district pays sign-on bonuses upfront and allows teachers who leave midway through the year to keep the whole sum. Osborne said the district is considering paying out the bonus in increments over the course of the year, or requiring teachers to pay back the bonus if they leave within a certain time frame.
Another promising recruitment strategy could be offering a referral bonus to educators who successfully recommend someone to a job opening in their district, Van Cleve said. The Mississippi Department of Education conducts an annual statewide survey of educators, and found that about half of teacher respondents said they first heard about a job opening from a friend or professional connection.
“When you think about it, who better to speak to the daily working conditions, daily experience, school culture, climate, than the teachers who are actually engaging in that on a daily basis?” she said.
Lopez agreed: “Word of mouth is a powerful recruitment tool.”
2. Build your own supply of teachers
To tackle shortages long term, the state and district leaders said they’re working to build their own supply of teachers. After all, the majority of teachers live and work in the same community in which they graduated high school, Van Cleve said.
“In Mississippi, geography remains the absolute most influential factor in whether an individual decides to apply to a district or not, far and away, given the results of our retention survey,” she said. “We can’t, as a result, underestimate the importance of some of these grow-your-own pathways in terms of that longer-term sustainability of our workforce.”
The state’s education department runs the Mississippi Teacher Residency, which is a graduate-level preparation program. Residents spend one year working—and receiving a paycheck—in a participating district while being mentored by a high-quality teacher. Their tuition and all other associated costs are covered, and the residents commit to teaching for two years in an area that’s experiencing critical teacher shortages upon graduation.
About 73 percent of residents identify as a person of color, Van Cleve said. Another indicator of success: 94 percent of mentor teachers said their resident is prepared to asteach on their own the following year.
Meanwhile, Midland ISD is working to register its in-house teacher residency program with the U.S. Department of Labor, which will unlock new federal dollars. The residents, who are college students, are paired with an accomplished teacher and work for a full school year as a paraprofessional before taking on a full-time teaching role.
The residents currently receive a paycheck and health benefits, but ideally, the district will be able to use the new funding to cover tuition costs and child care assistance as well, Osborne said.
Osborne said the district’s goal is to expand that program so that the residents work within the school district for all four years of college.
That way, “they really are entrenched and ingrained in our organization, in our system,” she said. “They know the culture, they know the people, they know the kids, they know the families, and so we believe that they will be more likely to stay with us.”
3. Rethink job fairs
Traditional recruitment strategies, like holding local job fairs, are no longer a reliably effective strategy for hiring teachers, Osborne said.
Using new methods is a better approach: Lopez said a “game-changer” for California districts has been transitioning in-person job fairs to virtual ones, so candidates from across the region—and outside of the state or even the country—can attend. Districts have also found success through targeting teaching candidates on social media sites like LinkedIn and Instagram, Lopez added.
The California Center on Teaching Careers has developed a recruitment toolkit for districts in the state. (Lopez said it’s also available to districts elsewhere in the country.) The theme of the campaign is an Uncle Sam-inspired “We Want You,” and the toolkit comes with postcards and social media graphics that districts can customize.
The goal is to elevate the profession, Lopez said. After all, prospective teachers are being inundated with negative messages about teaching, both from family and friends and the media.
“How do we make our profession attractive, in which people want to enter the profession? That does start with us,” Osborne said. “We’re our own best marketing team in our district.”